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Dr Alan Billings

Dr Alan Billings

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Nothing seems to divide opinion quite as much as the age at which we think children should be held responsible for any crimes they commit.

I get emails from people who are outraged when a young person is not prosecuted for a crime and emails from people who are outraged when they are.

Of course the problem starts with our understanding of childhood itself. The point at which a child is thought to be adult is different from society to society and from age to age. It is not so long ago that children were regarded as little adults and sent up chimneys and down mines. My mother left school at 14 and worked (literally) for the rest of her life in a factory; she died in her early fifties.

Even today we have different ages for treating people as mature enough to take on certain responsibilities: getting married; driving a car; taking out a mortgage; fighting for the country; and so on. And judging by the way many children are now dressed – think of the growing trend for school proms –  we seem to want to abolish the distinction between childhood and adulthood altogether.

I have young people telling me they don’t want to be treated like children and adults telling me we must not criminalise the young. I think you could say we are confused.

But the age of criminal responsibility is 10, and children do commit crimes, including quite serious ones, and the police have to deal with them.

If we were clearer about childhood, we might make better decisions about how we deal with those who are involved in criminality.

In South Yorkshire, when children are sentenced to serve time in either a young offender institute –  such as the one at Wetherby – or a secure children’s home – such as Aldine House, Sheffield – our Youth Offending Services start to work at once to prepare them for their return to the community. They treat them as children and know that they are often more sinned against than sinning, themselves the victims of abuse or neglect.

The danger is that these children write themselves off even as they have so often been written off, and see only a life of criminality ahead of them. Time in secure accommodation can be used well to encourage them to think differently about themselves  and their future, and to plan and prepare carefully for it. A difference can be made – and I have met those who have been helped to have a different view of themselves and have turned their young lives around.

The key is to get them to believe in themselves. And that often starts by having people around them who believe in them first.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. But done it can be – and I support those who work with these young people in every way I can.