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The region debates between hardening punishments of minors or treat them as subjects of special protection

Latin America: What should be done with juvenile criminality?

The discussion

On December 23, 2017, a 15-year-old boy raped and murdered his 9-year-old sister in Puerto Leguízamo (Colombia). The fact reactivated the debate, previously opened in the country, about making children under 18 respond as adults in cases of serious crimes. Currently, due to present legislation, minors respond with pedagogical and differentiated sanctions. For this reason, a new bill began to be managed in the House of Representatives of the Republic of Colombia, in order to reduce the age of majority for criminal purposes.

Naturally, the problem concerns not only Colombia. From Mexico to Argentina, minors are the protagonists of both minor and highly serious crimes. Sometimes their actions are isolated and sometimes obey the agenda of illegal organizations, which take advantage of them for tasks such as drug trafficking and hired killers given their relative immunity for being subject of protection.

The discussions have been frequent throughout the region. In 2006 and 2007, for example, Colombia and Chile respectively set the minimum age of imputability to minors at 14 years. In Panama, the age of entry into the juvenile criminal justice system was reduced from 14 to 12 years in 2010. In 2014, it passed again to 14 years.

In Paraguay, between 2012 and 2014, two proposals were developed to reduce the age of youth attributable from 14 to 12 years, without any effect. In 2015, the Congress of Brazil rejected a project that sought to lower the legal age of 18 to 16 years. Similarly, Uruguay held a referendum in 2016, in which people were consulted about reducing the age of criminality from 18 to 16 years, the proposal that was rejected by citizens. Finally, in Argentina, at the beginning of 2017, an initiative was launched to reduce the age of imputability to minors from 16 to 14 years.

Admission to the adult criminal regime in Latin America is predominantly 18 years, with exceptions such as Bolivia, Cuba, and other Caribbean countries, whose limit is lower. Most nations determine the minimum age of juvenile responsibility between 14 and 12 years. However, it ranges from a maximum of 16 years in Argentina, and a minimum of 7 years in Trinidad and Tobago, followed closely by low limits by other Caribbean island countries, like Guyana and Suriname.

The implications

The proposals to lower the legal age are not meaningless. The socialization parameters of Latin American minors have changed, because they are now hyperstimulated by the market, the media, and technology. Likewise, they have earlier and more constant access to experiences of sex and violence, and their education deviates from school and family guidelines.

In addition, according to psychiatrists, at ages such as 14 years young people already have a basic moral development, they can discern between what is considered good and bad, so they understand the consequences of their actions. From this perspective, and taking into account the cruelty that sometimes show their crimes, it is naive to continue understanding all minors under 18 as children.

However, on the other hand, decreasing the age of criminal age does not solve the problem. UNICEF indicates that the countries that implement this policy have not managed to reduce crime. Therefore, it would be unfair to limit the response of society to the punitive, neglecting the other factors of the situation created by the same society: environments of abuse and misery, parents whose jobs suppress their spaces of family interaction, families living under pressure from criminal actors, among others.

We must also add the panorama of Latin American prisons that, despite the enormous resources they receive, is deplorable. The situation is characterized by homicides, abuse, torture, riots, lack of drinking water, unhealthiness, and overcrowding (46% in Colombia, 70% in Brazil, 130% in Peru, 248% in El Salvador, 354% in Haiti).

Therefore, imprisoning children under 18 would not allow them to re-educate themselves, but would encourage them to go deeper into criminal practices, expose them to abuse, and exacerbate overcrowding as well as the internal conflicts of prisons.

It should be said, then, that the debates of Latin American countries have focused on the most uncomfortable and obvious aspects of the problem. If accurate results are sought, more effort must be made to change people's ways of socializing. This must involve novel educational strategies. Therefore, the solution must also include different views of the citizens’ roles, less in terms of production and more in terms of family and community welfare.


LatinAmerican Post | Ricardo Barón
Translated by Marcela Peñaloza

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