Raising the Age for Criminal Responsibility

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The issue of defining an age at which criminal responsibility can be evenly applied through the judicial system presents a virtual litany of thorny dilemmas, not the least of them being non-objective definitional logic or notable lack thereof. For every impassioned political plea that strives to correct the sentencing and imprisonment of sixteen and seventeen-year-old offenders, there are mounting data fields that attest to the ruthless and almost clinical nature of teenage offenders who evidence no sign of remorse of conscience for the acts they have committed. Part of the problem is the collective impression of children that remains a traditional area of enhanced sensitivity and pardon. The issue is often argued as one of intent, that children cannot approximate the intent of an adult offender and should therefore by pardoned on a basis of age that in itself is not resolved in terms of the function of the law. At what point in chronological age does the offender cross the rubicon of personal responsibility? This is a primary question and one that will be weighed and debated in this paper.

The Debate Over Responsibility

In any established culture with an evolved criminal justice system, primary questions of age-defined criminal responsibility become difficult propositions that challenge lawmakers, judges and jury pools to explore their own often guarded feelings about the sentencing of juvenile offenders who have committed murder, rape, assault or comparable crimes. Recently the Governor of New York state declared that the state should stop sentencing 16 and 17 year-olds to prison, irrespective of the severity of the crimes they have committed. He further proposed an overhaul of the state’s long-standing sentencing criteria, insisting that it be raised to a reasonable age for adult offenders. This position disregards a number of specific contradictions that impact and determine criminal responsibility (Alaimo, 2014). The suggestion is a consideration of maturity and in certain respects premeditation however the breach between these considerations is purely speculative. For instance, if the state can demonstrate premeditation in the act of a juvenile offender, would this override age-restricted sentencing criteria, or would it be dismissed under rigid age considerations? The argument assumes that age-associated awareness can be segmented in the same general way that other cultural benchmarks might operate. However, at the 16 or 17-year levels there are many variables that separate one teenager from another. Defining criminal responsibility by generalized age-criteria is untenable in any rational sense.

The argument is both irrational from the point of view of what defines criminal responsibility and complicated because it invokes an age-sensitivity that plays on parental emotions and sensibilities to the extent that teenagers cannot be held accountable for bad choices or seemingly irrational actions. But these crimes themselves are irrational at the adult level as well, hence there is the embedded suggestion that the point of allowance is in measuring criminal responsibility by a tacit sympathy standard that pardons teenage offenders simply because they are teenage offenders. In a number of recent cases, the offender is in the 16 to 17 range, and the crimes are appalling by any putative standard of civilized or responsible conduct. In some cases, the teenager expresses outright contempt for the court and the proceedings however they are invariably defended under age-considerations that contrasted with the severity of the crime may appear absurd (Chambliss, 2011). In addition, there is the closing point at which the age defense cannot be invoked, this could come down to a difference of days, weeks or even hours as the proceeding dictates. A serious offense may have been perpetrated by a 17-year-old, who, by the time he is brought to trial has turned eighteen and can no longer invoke an age defense. In this respect, the only relevant consideration would be chronological age. The subjective nature of such criteria is obvious.

The proposed age under which legal criminal responsibility can be applied is 18. This is simply a chronological number that reflects other laws that are used to define an adult for varied purposes which may include legal drinking age, voter eligibility, or military service admission. The empirical or conscious difference in personal responsibility at 17, as opposed to 18, is not taken into any extended consideration beyond the rigidity of the criteria. This rigidity can be contested on a number of reasonable levels, not the least of which is the breakpoint with age change (Cipriani, 2013). If a 17-year-old commits murder one month before his 18th birthday should juries consider a more lenient sentence simply due to the minute applications of the age-criteria? Or should the process follow along with the linearity of age? These are paramount questions that demand resolved answers if the proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility are to carry any credible weight.

Ultimately the argument for raising the age of criminal accountability cannot be defended in any logical sense, because the rhetorical assertions all reinforce a perception of children as not being criminally responsible until they attain an age that is arbitrarily defined as an adult. This is a demonstrably weak criterion for approximating criminal accountability. The argument for raising the age of criminal accountability assert that children, defined below the age of 18, simply cannot differentiate between right and wrong as it is understood by adults, that they lack the necessary maturity (Terrill, 2012). But this same argument could be used with offenders who are 18 and above. Following this reasoning, the issue becomes not one of personal accountability for one’s actions, but rather the degree of awareness, which is not age-dictated, and thus entirely subjective. Clearly, the reasoning employed in this argument is deeply flawed to the extent that it cannot be defended evenly. The unexpressed driver in this argument is the perception of child offenders as victims of poorly constructed sentencing criteria.

The reality that teenage offenders are on the rise, and that the crimes attributed to them are progressively more egregious doesn’t appear to enter the debate. An understanding of the alternatives available to adult sentencing for minors in criminal court must equate to a compelling argument for raising the age of criminal responsibility. If a child commits premeditated murder at 16, it is logical to ask what are the options available for judicial dispensation, and how would they be superior to the present age for criminal accountability? If the state sentences the offender to a juvenile facility or age-appropriate internment facility, there are no formal guarantees that the offender will not repeat his crimes when freed, just as the same conclusion applies to adult sentencing at the state or federal levels. The crime itself cannot be attenuated due to age-considerations however the sentencing guidelines being considered do just that.

Curiously enough there are broad diversions on this issue in the United States, this being one of only two nations that have not added their signature to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A number of states have no standard for age in criminal responsibility, yet maintain different sentencing policies. In North Carolina, the age for criminal accountability is 6, which may seem almost paradoxical to anyone advocating the raising of age-defined criminal responsibility. If awareness is the only consideration in age-related sentencing the process of making informed determination as to the degree of awareness or intent should play a paramount role in any criminal trial or sentencing (Bartollas & Miller, 2013). However, if a relevant determination of awareness or consequence cannot be made, the position of the court is called into question as with regard to its obligation to the victim. The more this issue is probed for a common or defensible justification for age-specific criteria in sentencing policy, the less resolved it becomes. In the end, the proposed standard for New York sentencing at 18 fails to offer a coherent rationale beyond the comparable age-considerations for an adult.


Alaimo, J. (2014). Cuomo calls for raising age for criminal responsibility. Retrieved from www.capitalnewyork.com/.../

Bartollas, C., & Miller, S. (2013). Juvenile justice in America. (7th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Cipriani, D. (2013). Children’s rights and the age of criminal responsibility, Advances in Criminology. Surey, UK: Ashgate Publishers.

Chambliss, W. J. (2011). Juvenile crime and justice. Key Issues of Crime and Punishment. London: Sage Publications.

Terrill, R. J. (2012). World criminal justice systems: A comparative survey. (8th ed.). Boston: Anderson.