Changing Social Attitudes Toward Children
Determining the minimum age of responsibility for criminal actions has been a problem throughout history. Until the nineteenth century the public considered children below seven years of age incapable of crime, while those above seven were considered adults and responsible for their actions. Children over seven years of age could face criminal charges and, if convicted, be placed in adult prisons. They faced the same punishment as adults including whipping, branding, and hanging. At times, however, courts informally considered an offender's age in their deliberations, especially those under fourteen.
Many social changes, however, occurred throughout the nineteenth century including perceptions of children and how they should be punished for committing criminal acts. Children began to be viewed as different from adults, since their thoughts and decisions were made in a different manner than adults. They were innocent and vulnerable to bad influences since they had not gained wisdom from experience. Because of this innocence, it was believed states should not hold them accountable for their actions. Rather than being punished, youthful offenders needed to be reformed and educated.
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