Have you ever wondered what happens to children who committed violent crimes?
One horrific case, the murder of James Bulger in the UK, shocked the world in 1993.
The two-year-old toddler, James Bugler, was kidnapped from a shopping mall, tortured and finally murdered – by two other children.
His murderers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were just ten-years-old at the time, and eleven years old when the trial took place.
According to English law, children under ten cannot be found guilty of a criminal offence. This is called the “age of criminal responsibility”.
Although they had just achieved that age, the pair’s trial had all the formalities of an adult trial, and the boys were separated from their parents and seated with social workers in a specially raised dock.
They were the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century and were sentenced to life imprisonment for their heinous act.
But their trial was criticised by the European Convention on Human Rights, who made a ruling on the case when the boys, nine years later, complained that they had been denied a fair trial and had been too young to have been subjected to adult criminal proceedings.
At the time of the trial, the then-Prime Minister of the UK said that people need to “condemn a little more and understand a little less”.
The prevailing view at the time was that some crimes are so disgraceful that they must feel the full weight of the law.
But the pair was released from prison in 2001 and one of them, Jon Venables, went on to commit further crimes.
At the time of the trial, Venables was seen as a good candidate for rehabilitation, as he showed more remorse than his co-accused.
Upon release, both were given new names and a chance to start afresh.
But it wasn’t long before Venables was once again on the wrong side of he law – this time flouting parole by possessing child pornography and receiving a three-year prison sentence in 2010.
He was released in 2013, aged 31, and issued with his fourth new identity.
Many were outraged that Venables was released again, and that his new identities and relocation expenses have cost the British taxpayer over £1 million.
What is the situation in Australia?
Like Britain, ten is the youngest age at which a child can be found criminally responsible.
For children in Australia to be convicted of a crime, they must essentially understand that what they were doing was wrong – not merely mischievous or naughty.
Without this understanding, a child cannot be held to be criminally responsible.
And in Australia, as was the case in Britain after the murder of James Bugler, there is also a perception that juvenile offenders get little more than a slap on the wrist.
In the last decade, Australia has seen a rise in the number of murders committed by teens, with dozens charged in the last few years alone.
One example was the shocking teen murders in South-Australian, where a 14 year old murdered a 63 year old retired nurse.
After drinking beer and playing video games, he went with a friend to the lady’s house, smashed a glass door and stabbed her in the chest with a knife.
The victim was stabbed mercilessly, with 32 wounds being delivered to her neck and chest alone.
She fought for her life throughout those stabbings, and was ultimately killed by bludgeoning with two rocks gathered from her garden.
The killer was not remorseful when arrested and questioned by police, quipping “well there goes my acting career” and “I’ll probably get 10 years for this, what do you think?”
When asked by police why he had committed the murder, he replied “I don’t know. I just felt like killing someone.”
He will be released after 15 years in prison, assuming he can get parole.
But one judge has doubts that he will come out as a well-adjusted and reformed person, and fears that he might commit further violent crimes.
Do juveniles get a criminal record?
Punishment for minor offences, whether occurring in childhood or adulthood, should not last a lifetime.
This is particularly important for children.
According to the Australian Law Reform Commission, getting a criminal record can have a detrimental effect on children and their future prospects.
Children are also ideal candidates for rehabilitation, and stigmatising them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives is counter-productive.
One inquiry found that youth who did not reoffend within five years are very unlikely to reoffend later in life – and that most young offenders do not reoffend at all.
Allowing young people to avoid convictions for minor offences is desirable, but what about those who commit serious sexual or violent offences?
In NSW, anyone under the age of 18 will have convictions kept on their record for three years.
And under current laws, criminal records and the identities of juvenile offenders cannot be revealed to the public even if they reoffend, unless permission is granted by the court.
In Victoria, one woman was horrified to learn that teen killers who sexually assaulted, bashed and chocked her mother to death reoffended just months after their release from prison, nine years later.
She fought hard to remove the “suppression order” that prevented their names from being released.
But Michale Stanton, the Liberty Victoria vice-president, believes that the focus should be on rehabilitation when it comes to youth offenders.
And while the outlined examples show that some kids go on to commit further crimes, in the majority of cases violent offending by young people tends to trail off by the time they reach their twenties.