The age of criminal responsibility of young offenders has become Macau's latest hot topic. Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah has said he is pondering lowering the age of criminality in the wake of an apparently incessant rise in juvenile crime. The change would have to be passed by the legislature. Macau's Portuguese-style penal code, which has been described by legal pundits as Asia's most progressive legislation on criminal justice, states that minors under the age of 16 cannot be prosecuted for their offences. They can merely be sent to a reformatory for counselling. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) admits that there is no clear international standard regarding the age at which criminal responsibility can be reasonably imputed to a juvenile. However, Unicef advises that criminal responsibility should 'not start at too low an age level'. The level is extremely low in a number of former British colonies, including Hong Kong, where children as young as seven can be charged as juvenile offenders. The age is eight in Scotland and 10 in the rest of Britain, while it stands at 16 in Portugal and 14 in Taiwan, mainland China, Germany and Japan. While most local community leaders appear to regard 14 as the correct age, many Macau citizens believe minors as young as 12 should be locked up. The instrumental use of children for criminal activities is of particular concern in Macau, where triads are known to use youngsters to carry out specific crimes, namely arson attacks and larceny, or act as lookouts. Social workers have blamed various causes for the recent surge in juvenile crime. The Macau Government introduced compulsory education only shortly before last year's handover, a measure that remains to be properly enforced. Problem students are often simply expelled from their schools without any follow-up, while others become habitual truants, resulting in a vast army of middle-school drop-outs who are easily driven into the arms of triad recruiters. Macau's pell-mell socio-economic development in the past two decades has created a legion of latchkey children who are prone to get in with the wrong crowd. Lawmaker Cheong Vai-kei has come up with the well-meaning but rather impractical proposal of imposing a curfew on unaccompanied minors after 10pm. The crux of the problem is that a quarter of the population is aged under 15. A local sociologist has warned that if not dealt with effectively, police investigations into juvenile crime could soon turn out to be a Pandora's box for the new administration. A comprehensive policy on youth, a service-orientated approach by the police and a multi-tiered system of correctional and educative measures applicable to specific age-groups of minors should help remedy the situation. Prevention is the best way of keeping Macau's youngsters on the straight and narrow.