Mr Sheerman said: “The fact is that in England and Wales we lock up more children than any other country in Europe. We imprison four times as many young people as Portugal, 25 times as many as Belgium, and 100 times as many as Finland”.
Currently, the age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10 years old. Children aged between 10 and 17 can be prosecuted for a crime, yet are treated differently from those who are aged 18 and over. For example, they are sent to secure centres as opposed to adult prisons.
But how accurate is Mr Sheerman’s claim? Does England and Wales lock up four times as many young people as Portugal, 25 times as many as Belgium, and 100 times as many as Finland?
At first, it appears that Mr Sheerman quoted the claim from a Parliament briefing paper, which is attributed to a seminar entitled “The age of criminal responsibility” from a 2009-10 All Party Parliamentary Group for Children lecture session. Full Fact contacted Tim Bateman, a speaker at the seminar, who pointed us towards the statistics behind the claim, which can be found in a 2008 journal article, “The punitive turn in juvenile justice” by Professor John Muncie:
The data shows the estimated number of youths in prison aged under 18 in the USA and Western Europe, and includes the rate per 1000 for the under 18 population. Based on this data alone, England and Wales (0.25 rate per 1000 under 18 population) has four times as many young people in prison as Portugal (0.06 rate per 1000 under 18 population), around 25 times as many as Belgium (0.08 rate per 1000 under 18 population), and 100 times as many as Finland (0.002 rate per 1000 under 18 population).
But, as the table suggests, these figures are estimates based on data collated at various dates from 2004 to 2007. The article itself recognises that “there are of course good reasons to remain cautious (if not dismissive) in ‘reading’ such statistics”. For example, some countries “do not have any reliable statistical record of who they lock up and where”. Professor Muncie also says that in Spain and Portugal, there are no data specifically on those under 18 year old. On this basis, Mr Sheerman’s claim must be approached with caution.
Mr Sheerman’s claim is likely to be out-of-date as well, considering how the number of children in custody has decreased over recent years (see graph below).
In 2006/07, as Professor Muncie notes, there were 2,927 children in custody. In October 2012 the population of children and young people under 18 in secure estates (custody) was 1,595 (Ministry of Justice figures). Of this number, 72 children were aged between 10 and 14 and 1,523 were aged between 15 and 17.
Source: Ministry of Justice
Age of criminal responsibility in Europe:
It’s interesting to note that England and Wales has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe, which has attracted much criticism. In February, Thomas Hammarberg, the (now former) Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights raised the issue in a letter to the then Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke:
“The very low age of criminal responsibility throughout the country remains a serious concern. It is very important that it be put in line with the rest of Europe, where the average age of criminal responsibility is 14 or 15.”
The Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics show how the age of criminal responsibility varies across Europe. The age of criminal responsibility in Luxembourg is 18 years old, followed by Lithuania and Malta at 16 years old. In most European countries the age of criminal responsibility is either 14 or 15 years old, and the lowest (apart from England and Wales and Switzerland) is 12 years old in Turkey, the Netherlands, San Marino, Scotland and the Irish Republic (although children younger than 12 years old can be held criminally responsible for serious crimes in Ireland).
The countries mentioned in Mr Sheerman’s claim have the following age of criminal responsibility:
- Portugal: 16 years old
- Belgium: 18 years old
- Finland: 15 years old
It’s unclear whether the age of criminal responsibility has an impact on the number of children in custody. For instance, we might expect fewer children to be imprisoned in countries with a higher age of criminal responsibility, as the law might apply to a smaller number. However, this is not necessarily the case.
Mr Sheerman’s claim is likely to be out-of-date. There is no recent comparable data for Portugal, Belgium and Finland, yet there is new data available for the number of children in custody in England and Wales. There is also the difficulty of comparing countries with different ages of criminal responsibility. As for England and Wales however, the debate on the age of criminal responsibility is set to continue.