Children and the Capacity for Crime

Depending on their age and experience, some children may be legally incapable of committing crime. But the modern trend is to hold virtually all minors accountable for their conduct.

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Historically, children have been considered to lack the capacity to commit crime in that they don’t have the mental capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions. One’s intent or mental state is an important feature of criminal law, and if someone doesn’t have the intent to commit a crime, then often that person can’t be found guilty.

For example, if an expensive vase fell into your bag while shopping without your knowledge, then you wouldn’t be guilty of shoplifting because you lacked the intent to steal (although you might have a tough time proving that in court). Because we consider children as having a different understanding of reality, right and wrong, and societal norms, we often don’t hold them responsible if they commit a crime. In essence, the tradition in criminal law is not hold children to an adult code of conduct.

Age Limits for Prosecution

The age at which a child has the legal capacity for crime has changed over time. In the past, any child younger than the age of seven was considered to lack criminal capacity and could not be tried for a crime. Children between the ages of seven and 14 were also seen as lacking capacity, but if a prosecutor could show that the child’s age, experience, and understanding caused him or her to know the acts were wrong, then the state could proceed with a criminal prosecution.

Infancy defense

If a child younger than 14 faces criminal prosecution, he or she may be able to assert the infancy defense. This defense is based on lack-of-capacity concept. If a child asserts the infancy defense, the prosecution must show with clear proof (a high standard) that the child understood and appreciated the wrongfulness of his or her actions. The court might consider the circumstances of the crime, including whether there was planning and preparation or an attempt to conceal the crime.

Modern Trend: Hold Kids Accountable

Much of the traditional approach toward children and crime has changed over time. The creation of separate juvenile courts means that children don’t face the same criminal system as adults and aren’t exposed to the same punishment. In a juvenile adjudication, which is not a criminal prosecution, the goal is rehabilitation and treatment rather than punishment. Since the system has different goals and is centered on children, the traditional age barriers to prosecution typically don’t apply in juvenile court. However, in a few states a young child may still be able to assert the infancy defense in a juvenile court proceeding.

In addition, children can be charged and tried as adults for certain serious or violent crimes in many states. Over the past 20 years, there has been a substantial rise in the number of children being prosecuted for violent crimes in adult court. Many states have revised their laws to make it easier to treat children as adults in this regard.

See a Lawyer

If your child has committed or been charged with a crime, consult a criminal lawyer experienced in juvenile matters. Such an attorney can advise you of the applicable law and protect your child's rights.

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