The responsibility of young people and the vicarious responsibility of their parents: A vignette study investigating the influence of perpetrator age and victim harm on public attributions of criminal and general responsibility

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Dr Deirdre Drake

Second Advisor

Dr Adrian Scott


Following the notorious James Bulger murder and several subsequent cases, the media has increasingly reported on children under the age of 10 engaging in serious and violent criminal behaviour. The media have reported claims that children understand crime, and its consequences, at a younger age compared to previous generations due to revolutionary advances in technology and education. Consequently, there has been a tendency for the media to report punitive public reactions to youth crime, focused on harsher penalties at younger ages. Under Australian law children under the age of 10 fall below the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR), and are considered doli incapax (i.e., they lack the capacity to form criminal intent). Recent developmental psychological research indicates that children understand concepts of right and wrong from approximately six years of age. However, they do not fully develop the ability to manage the emotional aspects of decision making until approximately 25 years of age, placing them at risk of engaging in impulsive and ill-considered decision making without considering the possible consequences of their actions. Accordingly, there is a fundamental gap between media/public attributions and psychological research. Another related and contentious policy issue regarding the MACR, is the degree of vicarious responsibility parents should assume for their child(ren)’s criminal behaviour.

Utilising an attribution theoretical perspective and Hart’s (1968) construct of responsibility, the current research project investigated public attributions (n = 274) regarding the criminal and general responsibility of young people, the vicarious criminal and general responsibility of parents. A 3 x 3 factorial experimental design was employed to measure the influence of perpetrator age (7, 11 or 14 years) and level of harm caused to the victim (low, moderate, high) on attributions of the criminal responsibility of young people and their parents (i.e., the child/parent being processed and punished by the criminal justice system), as well as the general responsibility of young people and their parents (i.e., the child/parent being held accountable for the harm caused via civil remedies and alternatives to justice). Attributions were measured using quantitative and qualitative methods.

The results indicated that attributions of criminal responsibility are significantly predicted by the level of harm caused to the victim, and demonstrated that the public are prepared to attribute criminal responsibility to children as young as seven years of age when a high level of harm is caused. It was found that the public support the use of restorative and diversionary justice measures to deal with young people. Whilst they are willing to hold children responsible, the public do not support holding parents ‘criminally’ responsible for their children’s actions. Instead, the public favour civil remedies such as the victim and their parents paying compensation.

As well as being consistent with existing literature regarding attributions of responsibility, the findings contribute new insights regarding the ability of the public to differentiate between concepts of criminal responsibility and general responsibility when forming attributions. When provided with information regarding a specific example of youth crime, the public support efforts to intervene with young people and their family to reduce the risk of reoffending. The public do not necessarily desire punitive responses to youth crime, such as a lower MACR or vicarious parental criminal responsibility.

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