Probably one of the most difficult and hotly debate issues that any society faces is the level of criminal responsibility that a child can be held responsible for. The general consensus is that children cannot be held accountable for their criminal behavior because they are unaware that what they are doing is necessarily wrong. Without the awareness element to a criminal act, the defendant cannot be said to have acted with intent – and essential element behind any criminal convention. This is not only right, but also proper. A child, by mere fact that they are a child, should not be presupposed to know the same as an adult. Clearly a child should be allowed to enjoy their youth without hindering their development by stipulating that they be held accountable for their actions in the same manner as an adult is.
None of the above is particularly contentious stuff. However, as Dickens showed in Oliver Twist adults can use the fact that a child cannot be held criminally liable for their own benefit by getting a child to commit a crime they would otherwise have done themselves safe in the knowledge that the child is unlikely to be prosecuted if discovered (although there may be other actions taken). Moreover, children today seem to mature a lot quicker than previously. Add to that the fact that the nature of criminal behavior changes, and every now and then society is faced with the prospect of an inward look at its codes of behavior to see if the old rules still apply. Again, not particularly contentious stuff.
Why is it then that we continue to reduce to the age of criminal responsibility? Is it simply the fact that we now expect children to know more than we did when we were children? Or is the answer that children have adapted to the changes in criminal behavior better than we, as adults, can?
In short, there is no clear and easy answer to any of these questions. What, however, is clear is that changes in technology have made children more susceptible to criminal activity than was previously the case. In other words, the Internet has created a new breed of criminal: the child cyber criminal.
Criminal attorney will tell you that there has been a shift in their child related caseloads from those who were previously accused of social crimes, such as theft and violence, including gun related violence, to more technical crimes. Among caseloads that criminal attorney are likely to see before them today include internet crimes such as hacking, illegal downloading of music and other intellectual property related matters from the Internet, and even possibly cyber crimes such as blackmail. For criminal attorneys, these offenses have traditionally fallen into one of two broad categories: (a) what are known as non-violent ‘white collar’ crimes, such as the illegal downloading of music from the Internet; and (ii) more violent crimes, such as blackmail, which involve the use of technical equipment and for which the law has, as yet, not made adequate provisions for the offence.
Child crime and the internet
There is little doubt that the Internet has been a revolution. It is a wonderful tool for people to meet up and chat. Children are no different and social networking websites and forums meet a need that never previously existed. Nonetheless, Internet crime itself is new. As any criminal attorney will tell you, the criminal law surrounding misuse of the Internet is constantly evolving on an almost daily basis to try and catch up with the various different aspects of criminal behavior that criminals can conduct via the Internet. Due to the previously mentioned age of responsibility issue, this becomes even more complex when children are involved. That said, the following are some of the more common Internet-based crimes that the best criminal attorney are retained to counsel today’s child alleged criminals on:
Unauthorized computer access
More commonly known simply as ‘hacking’ unauthorized computer access is exactly what it states it is, the unauthorized access of another persons computer or computer network. While children may find this a fairly harmless and enjoyable way to pass the time, and while some criminal attorneys may even argued that the act is educational, the fact remains that unauthorized access of a computer is a crime punishable under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
In addition to prohibiting the unauthorized access of a computer, hacking can also constitute a federal offence if the child hacker then gains information from their action. In such as a case, if the child hacker was able to obtain financial data, information relating to a US agency or department, or information used in interstate or foreign communications, then the commission of the offense would become a federal offence, which raises the bar.
Generally speaking the best criminal attorneys will tell you that fraud needs an element of intent and that without such the commission of a fraud crime cannot be made to stick. Nevertheless, if a child uses the Internet with the intent to access a computer network without permission, then a crime has been commissioned. Unfortunately for children with limited understanding on the value of the crime they have committed, the threshold amounts for a fraud crime are minimal, where losses aggregate to a value $5,000.
However, even if a criminal attorney was able to establish that no actual intent to cause harm existed, it is highly likely that the child cyber criminal would still be liable for a reckless or negligent criminal action for their actions.
Unlawful access to stored communications
How tempting it must be for children to jump ion the Internet and hack their school records so that they can change their report card the result of which means Mum and Dad get to see what a star student they have been. Unfortunately this is a federal criminal offence and if such action is taken by a child, the services of a criminal attorney will surely be required!
As previously mentioned, ask any criminal attorney what they believe is the biggest rise in child crime and, among those in the know, the answer would likely be a rise in copyright violations, such as the illegal downloading or sharing of music files. Unfortunately for the child, this is both a criminal and civil offense.
Policing the internet
Detracting children away from the attention and attraction of Internet based criminal behavior is not easy. Many children see the Internet as a large playground and do not really see the harm they are causing. Obviously there are the exceptions to the rule and a number of children are fully aware of what they’re doing. However, for a large majority of the children participating in Internet-related crimes, prevention can be achieved not only through the courts and criminal attorneys, but also in the manner that we police the Internet.
One of the most successful tools that can be used to prevent children from becoming cyber criminals is to import a key-lock program onto your child’s computer system so that you can track their Internet related activities. Also popular among courts and criminal attorneys are software packages that limit the use of the internet activities by children, such as programs that simply will not allow children to access certain websites.
In addition to these, there is also the careful watchful eye of Mum and Dad. Obviously we cannot expect Mums and Dads to spend all day every day keeping an eye on their children; however, when it comes to the Internet it is probably best that you limit the time each day that your child can ‘play’ on the Internet and that you ensure that, at all times, they are under your watchful eye and never allowed to ‘play’ on the Internet alone or with a group of friends.
What happens if they get caught?
You may wonder what would happen to a child who was caught in the commission of an Internet based crime. Obviously the answer here would very much depend on the nature of the criminal activity and the result of the actions of the child. Whether or not the child was aware of what their actions would be would also be significant.
However, most criminal attorneys will tell you that if a child does get caught in the commission of an Internet related offense then they’ll likely be warned of their future behavior. If the child becomes a repeat cyber criminal, then criminal attorneys may need to negotiate with the court that the serve a minimal period in a correction facility, but it is unlikely that this action is going to be considered unless the damage caused was substantial or unless the child is a several time repeat offender.
Clearly, however, the severity of any punishment is going to depend (a) on whether the offence is considered a state offence under one of the many state legislations enacted to protect against Internet based crime; or (b) whether the offence will be considered a federal offence under one of the federal offenses; and (c whether or not you retain the services of the best criminal lawyer to defend you. If you use a criminal defense attorney with experience, preferably the best criminal lawyer you afford, then chances are that the punishment will be minor. However, if you are unable to afford the best criminal defense attorney, then not having the best criminal attorney to argue your case could make things more complicated.
Have crime rates among children increased?
On first glance, a review of criminal statistics among children two decades ago and today would make for alarming reading. State-side this is particularly the case, with California criminal attorney in particular being besieged with child crimes. Nevertheless, there is significantly more reported and recorded crime among children today then there has been at any time in the past and with the Silicon Valley being squarely in the State of California, it is not surprising to see why a California criminal attorney would need to acquaint themselves with defending Internet related crimes. Notwithstanding this, the best criminal defense attorneys will tell you that when looking at this data you need to reflect on several issues.
First, although more recorded crime is being detailed among children today, less violent crime is being recorded, although among the gang plagued streets of California and New York this may not seem to be the case and any half decent California criminal attorney will still need to have their wits about them when dealing with juvenile criminals attending their offices.
Overall, however, children have either wised up, or the nature of the crimes being committed have changed. Easily identifiable here is a move away from recorded violent crime to more technical and intellectual crimes, the likes of those internet based crimes set out above. In short, children of today are more technically savvy than children of previous generations and much like children of previous generations used their skills to further their criminal enterprises, children of today are using their skill and familiarity with the internet to further their own criminal enterprises.
Should we be looking to reduce the age of criminal responsibility for cyber related crimes?
One look at any child in front of a computer terminal will tell you that they can work their way round a computer in a second. Adults, on the other hand, never seem to get a grasp of how computers work. Should we, then, be considering lowering the age of criminal responsibity for cyber related crimes, given that the child most probably knows more about what is going on that the adult?
The answer here, at this time, would most likely be no. Criminal attorneys are reluctant to see children in the criminal system at an early age as it is likely to make them prone to becoming life long criminals. There is also the strong argument that children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood. Nevertheless, the economic, physical and emotional damage that can be done by a child in front of a computer can be very substantial indeed and while defense criminal attorneys and criminal attorneys as a whole can tell you that there was no intent of real harm being done, society still needs to be protected form the actions of a few minors who reek havoc by learning the sophisticated methods of computer networks at an early age.
Can children become productive following an Internet related crime?
Having said that children are more adapt at using the internet to commission a crime, it now worth considering whether or not we can capture this to help make the child more productive in society.
Anyone who has seen the movie Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the real-life role of Frank Abagnale JR. will be able to tell you than young adults can be very ingenious indeed. What may not be so well known is that after completing his time, Frank Abagnale JR. became and extremely wealth man and repaid all of the debts he accumulated as a fraudster. How did he do this? Simple really, he showed those who he defrauded exactly how he did it and he then made an extremely successful career out of introducing new security measures so that nobody could do exactly what he had done!
If we take this example one set further, could be not utilize the skills of today’s children to help us to protect security and highly confidential information on the Internet? This would also provide them with a challenging outlet to further their pleasurable activities. Clearly the answer here is that yes we could and clearly this makes for a much more attractive alternative than sending children to prison.
In conclusion, it would be a fair assessment to say that child related Internet crime levels have increased in the past two decades. But, given that the Internet is less than two decades old, what do we have to compare them with. Essentially, the only records we have are the more violent street crime records. Here there does appear to be a reduction in recorded street gun related crimes. Which either means that criminal defense attorney have become some of the best criminal law lawyers around, or, like the children committing the offenses, more likely, criminal law lawyers have had to change their practice such that criminal law lawyers now practice more technology related defense cases than defending street related crimes. Among the best criminal law lawyers, the word is out, if you want to be considered the best criminal lawyer in your field today, and if your practice includes defending children in criminal cases, you’d best know how the Internet works.