Old enough to be a criminal?

Children below a certain age are too young to be held responsible for breaking the law. That concept is spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for nations to establish a minimum age "below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the penal law." But the Convention does not set a specific age, and it varies greatly. 

International standards, such as the Beijing Rules for juvenile justice, recommend that the age of criminal responsibility be based on emotional, mental and intellectual maturity and that it not be fixed too low. 

The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors countries’ implementation of the Convention, has recommended that the age be guided by the best interests of the child. 

In the US, the age of criminal responsibility is established by state law. Only 13 states have set minimum ages, which range from 6 to 12 years old. Most states rely on common law, which holds that from age 7 to age 14, children cannot be presumed to bear responsibility but can be held responsible. 

In Japan, offenders below age 20 are tried in a family court, rather than in the criminal court system. In all Scandinavian countries, the age of criminal responsibility is 15, and adolescents under 18 are subject to a system of justice that is geared mostly towards social services, with incarceration as the last resort. As of April 1997, only 15 juveniles were serving a prison sentence in Sweden. 

In China, children from age 14 to 18 are dealt with by the juvenile justice system and may be sentenced to life imprisonment for particularly serious crimes. 

In most countries of Latin America, the reform of juvenile justice legislation is under way. As a result, the age of adult criminal responsibility has been raised to 18 in Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Children from age 12 to 18 are held responsible under a system of juvenile justice. 

The wide variation in age of criminal responsibility reflects a lack of international consensus, and the number of countries with low ages indicates that many juvenile justice systems do not adequately consider the child's best interests.

Age of criminal responsibility is just one variable influencing how juveniles are treated by justice systems. Other variables include whether there is a separate  juvenile law based on child rights; whether a young person is subject to punitive sanctions or only to socio-educational measures; and whether the country has separate court systems and jails for young people. A juvenile justice system  provides legal protections and an objective standard for treatment. In its absence, young people may be handled by the adult criminal justice system or be held in 'protective' custody, where they have no legal protections and may  face arbitrary or harsh treatment.
Age of criminal responsibility  
Minimum age at which children are subject to penal law in countries with 10 million or more children under 18 years old
Mexico *6-12
Bangladesh 7
India 7
Myanmar 7
Nigeria 7
Pakistan 7
South Africa 7
Sudan 7
Tanzania 7
Thailand 7
United States **7
Indonesia 8
Kenya 8
UK (Scotland) 8
Ethiopia 9
Iran ***9
Philippines 9
Nepal 10
UK (England) 10
UK (Wales) 10
Ukraine 10
Turkey 11
Korea, Rep. 12
Morocco 12
Uganda 12
Algeria 13
France 13
Poland 13
Uzbekistan 13
China 14
Germany 14
Italy 14
Japan 14
Russian Federation 14
Viet Nam 14
Egypt 15
Argentina 16
Brazil ****18
Colombia ****18
Peru ****18
Congo, Dem. Rep. -
 *Most states 11 or 12 years; age 11 for federal crimes.  
  **Age determined by state, minimum age is 7 in most states under common law.  
 ***Age 9 for girls, 15 for boys.  
****Official age of criminal responsibility, from age 12 children's actions are subject to juvenile legal proceedings.  
Sources: CRC Country Reports (1992-1996); Juvenile Justice and Juvenile Delinquency in Central and Eastern Europe, 1995; United Nations, Implementation of UN Mandates on Juvenile Justice in ESCAP, 1994; Geert Cappelaere, Children's Rights Centre, University of Gent, Belgium.
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