The two alleged perpetrators in the case of the killed twelve-year-old Luise will not be prosecuted. They are 12 or 13 years old – and in Germany, children under the age of 14 are legally incapable of being guilty. A comparison shows that children of that age are not prosecuted in most other European countries either. In some cases, the age of criminal responsibility is higher. But there are also countries where children are tried in court.

In German criminal law, you can only be punished for serious crimes if you have acted culpably – and this requires insight and control, which children usually do not yet have. But that doesn’t mean that an act doesn’t have consequences. The family court or bodies such as the youth welfare office can be notified. However, this is about support – not punishment.

In the Weimar Republic, the criminal liability limit was raised from twelve to fourteen years in 1923. In 1943, the National Socialists temporarily lowered the limit again to twelve years. This was reversed in the Federal Republic in 1953. In the GDR, too, the limit of 14 years applied from 1952.

Tobias Singelnstein, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Law at Goethe University Frankfurt, said the legislature decided based on evidence to set the limit at 14 years. According to everything that is known from other sciences such as sociology or educational sciences about growing up and the level of development of children, people up to that age are usually not capable of insight and control and are therefore not responsible. Experts therefore largely agree that 14 is the correct age limit.

“Of course, it can be different in individual cases,” says Singelnstein. “However, the legislature has – rightly so in my opinion – decided in favor of a general and not an individualized solution in the law.” Otherwise, you have to examine each individual case. The vast majority of children would be confronted with stigmatizing procedures, although in the end it would come out that they were not guilty.

As can be seen from a list by the scientific service of the Bundestag from 2019, in more than half of the EU countries the age of criminal responsibility begins at the age of 14 or 15. These include countries such as Sweden, Finland and Denmark (15 years) or Croatia, Italy and Spain (14). In Austria, too, young people under the age of 14 are not capable of committing a crime and cannot be convicted. You may be threatened with educational measures.

In Portugal, criminal responsibility does not begin until the age of 16. In Poland, you are criminally responsible from the age of 17, but 15-year-olds can also be punished for selected crimes such as murder or kidnapping. In France, children under the age of 13 are considered incapable of judgement. Even if this assessment can be overturned in individual cases, a juvenile court judge can impose a maximum of educational measures.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, the age limit is twelve years. Hungary also changed the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12 in 2013. In Ireland, the age limit is twelve, with an exception for children between the ages of ten and eleven for serious crimes.

In Switzerland, children are already criminally responsible from their tenth birthday. Juvenile criminal law applies to them, which also provides for penalties for older offenders, but above all provides for protective measures. Young people can only be sentenced to imprisonment from the age of 16.

In the UK, children can be sentenced to years in prison. The age of criminal responsibility begins at ten in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and at twelve in Scotland.

In the United States, regulations vary from state to state. In just under half there is no minimum age at all for children to be tried. In many states, the age limit is between ten and thirteen years. In some cases, however, the limit does not apply to crimes such as murder.