This is the captivating title of an article written earlier today by Diana Kwon for Quartz Magazine, which discusses the issue of how much can children be held responsible for murder.
Children committing murder is not such a common occurrence, but it does happen. For example, last October, an 8-year-old boy from Alabama strangled a toddler to death, and in the same month, an 11-year-old child from Tennessee shot another child because they had an argument over puppies.
All these instances raise the question of what is the age after which a child can be held accountable for his or her actions. No country seems to have the same opinion over this – in England and Australia the age is 10, in Belgium it is 18, and in the United States every state has the right to chose.
Which leaves us with scientific research to try to define what the limit should be. Kay Bussey, a developmental psychologist at Macquarie University in Australia decided to undertake such an investigation after hearing about the case of a 10-year-old child who threw his friend into a river in 1998. The child was not held responsible for his actions because he was considered too young to understand how what he did is different from “everyday childish mischief”.
Bussey conducted a study to assess children’s ability to understand intent and to regulate their own behavior. Both children and adults were exposed to a series of short stories which ranged from actual crimes to some mischievous activities, which led to the conclusion that even 8-year-old children can tell that a criminal act is worse than a mischievous one and they understand the consequences of committing one. This suggests that children are able to understand what a criminal act is and to control their behavior accordingly.
But other specialists believe that this study overlooks an important issue. Professor David Fassler at the University of Vermont tells Quartz that “However, the authors overreach in their interpretation of the ‘ability to self-regulate’ behavior with respect to potential criminal conduct.” He believes that this study fails to acknowledge more recent studies that show how children’s brains continue to develop through adolescence and early adulthood. This means that while children can tell the difference between a criminal and mischievous act, they can have a difficult time holding back their impulses.
As a consequence of that, juvenile justice advocates in the US and the UK have recently asked for an increase in the age when children should be held accountable for criminal acts.