Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has told a newspaper he thinks the British government should consider raising the age of criminal responsibility, acknowledging that very young people involved in crime still need to be recognised as children.
The archbishop has previously spoken out in favour of moving from retributive to restorative justice in penal policy.
In his interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Dr Williams raised questions about the current system in its impact on the vulnerable. He said that women with young children, in particular, should only be imprisoned as a very “last resort”.
The UK Ministry of Justice has said that “only 3 per cent of young people convicted by a court receive a custodial sentence", but campaigners say that a core of young offenders are in danger of being hardened by imprisonment.
Reformers have argued that in certain respects, prisons can end up being "schools for crime", rather than tackling its causes and helping people to change. This is against the interests of victims as well as offenders, they argue.
Dr Williams told the newspaper: "The tragedy of where we are at present is that, at one and the same time, children are treated like adults and at other levels they are left to flounder in real immaturity and neediness."
According to the law in England and Wales, children can be charged with criminal offences as young as 10 years of age. Campaigners, however, are arguing this should be raised to avoid branding them as “delinquents” and trapping them in a culture of crime.
Dr Williams stressed that he was not ignoring the seriousness of some of the crimes these young children commit, but said that it was important to recognise a young teenager "may still in very many important respects still genuinely be a child".
A government spokesperson told BBC News on Monday 5 November 2007: "Custody for under-18s is always a last resort...Where possible, the Government is keen to ensure that children and young people are not prosecuted through court."
She went on: "We [still] believe that children aged 10 and over can differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing. It is not in the interests of justice, of victims or the young people themselves to prevent serious offending being challenged."
Campaigners say that prison is not a good way of directing the young away from a life of crime, and that the government's agenda is being over conditioned by the 'get tough' fears spread by tabloid papers. A more ratinal and humane approach is needed, they suggest.