Child criminals escape justice

Hundreds of children in East Anglia are escaping punishment for crimes including assault, arson and sex attacks because they are too young to be prosecuted, the EDP can reveal today.

Hundreds of children in East Anglia are escaping punishment for crimes including assault, arson and sex attacks because they are too young to be prosecuted, the EDP can reveal today.

According to Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire police nearly 300 crimes involving under-10s were recorded in the past year alone.

Offences ranged from vandalism and theft to street robberies and carrying knives in school. But because they are under the legal age of criminal responsibility none of the youngsters could be taken to court.

The figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act as ministers came under pressure to raise the age of accountability from 10 to 14.

But last night a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “It is not in the interests of justice, of victims or the young people themselves to prevent serious offending being challenged.”

A former government advisor called for the review after the prosecution of five schoolboys who are now serving two-year sentences for the manslaughter of 67-year-old Ernest Norton.

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The boys, aged between ten and 12 when the attack took place, hurled half bricks at Mr Norton, from Kent, until he collapsed and died of a heart attack. Under the proposals it would have been impossible to prosecute them.

Rob Allen, a member of the Youth Justice Board, said: “If a child does some dreadful act it shows that something very worrying has gone wrong in their upbringing, their family and their education.”

The amount of crime involving under-10s in the three counties increased to 277 last year from 230 the previous year . The most common offence was criminal damage followed by other acts of anti-social behaviour. But there were also seven sexual offences last year and 59 assaults.

No statistics for the number of under-14s involved in crime were available but it is understood the figure could more than triple if the law was changed. Crimes involving children below the ceiling can result in social service action or juvenile proceedings but would never end up in a criminal court.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said removing such sanctions would be “potentially dangerous” as youngsters become more streetwise. “There cannot be a conclusion reached that because a person is too young no action will be taken,” he said.

“There needs to be positive action - possibly through the courts - to make sure they are dealt with, punished and diverted away from a life of crime during these formative years.”

This was echoed by Norwich North MP Ian Gibson who said: “We need to make it too risky for them to even consider committing crimes. This can be done through the courts or by police working with schools and parents.”

Mr Allen, who has advised four Labour home secretaries, urged ministers to bring British law in line with the rest of the EU where the threshold is 14. He said that children under this age cannot anticipate the consequences of their actions as an adult can.

The Ministry of Justice spokesman said the government has no plans to change the age of criminal responsibility. As an alternative to detention, which was always a last resort, the range and intensity of community sentences available for young people has been expanded. The government believes children of 10 and over can differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing.

Former Tory home secretary Michael Howard backed this position. He said: “Children of 10 do know the difference between right and wrong. It beggars belief that they don't know that throwing stones at a man until he collapses and dies is especially wrong.”

It also emerged that forces have been ordered to stop recording the “non sanctioned detections” - because the Home Office said it was too expensive.

Releasing the information, Richard Kindleysides, Norfolk police's freedom of information decision maker, said the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers decided to “heavily curtail” the recording of such information from April.

He added: “As a consequence, no force is no required to annotate an offence as having been detected because the offender was under age. Norfolk police adopted the position on year earlier following an internal review which concluded that the substantial resources requires could be better applied in serving the community.”

A similar approach has been adopted by police in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

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