Treat delin­quents with kid gloves

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Six mem­bers of the “Church of the Almighty God”, a cult or­ga­ni­za­tion, re­cently beat a woman to death in Zhaoyuan, Shan­dong prov­ince, be­cause she re­fused to join their or­der. Al­though five of the six sus­pects have been ar­rested, the sixth can­not be taken into po­lice cus­tody be­cause he is less than 14 years old.

Late last year, a 10-year-old girl in Chongqing “tor­tured” a one-year-old boy and threw him from the 25th floor. In this case, too, the ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties de­cided not to pros­e­cute her be­cause she was less than 14 years old.

With the me­dia fre­quently ex­pos­ing ju­ve­nile delin­quency, some people have urged the govern­ment to lower the min­i­mum age at which a per­son can be charged for a crime, which re­mains a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue across the world. A govern­ment fixes the min­i­mum age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bly based on the phys­i­cal, emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual ma­tu­rity of ju­ve­niles in the coun­try, as well as other so­cial fac­tors such as tra­di­tion, cul­ture, ed­u­ca­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment lev­els.

In the mod­ern ju­di­cial ap­proach for fix­ing the min­i­mum age, le­gal ex­perts have to con­sider whether ju­ve­niles can be held re­spon­si­ble for es­sen­tially an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iors by their in­di­vid­ual dis­cern­ment and un­der­stand­ing. And the UN Stan­dard­Min­i­mum Rules for the Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice (or The Bei­jing Rules), adopted in 1985, says the min­i­mum age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity should not be very young. China’s Crim­i­nal Pro­ce­dure Law, al­though re­vised in 1997, hasn’t changed the min­i­mum age for crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity from 14 years, which was fixed in 1979. This is in ac­cor­dance with China’s Law on the Preven­tion of Ju­ve­nile Delin­quency, and the aim of pri­or­i­tiz­ing ed­u­ca­tion over pun­ish­ment in ju­ve­nile delin­quency cases.

In Ja­pan, Ger­many, Italy and some other coun­tries, too, the min­i­mum age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity is 14 years, but coun­tries like France, Canada and Mex­ico have a lower min­i­mum age.

People urg­ing the Chi­nese govern­ment to lower the min­i­mum age ar­gue that more than three decades of re­forms and open­ing-up have dras­ti­cally changed China’s so­cial and eco­nomic land­scapes. As a re­sult, to­day’s ju­ve­niles are psy­chi­cally and men­tally more ma­ture than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Some ex­treme cases re­ported by the me­dia seem to have strength­ened their be­lief.

But those de­mand­ing the low­er­ing of the min­i­mum age should re­al­ize that the is­sue is com­pli­cated and that a law­should not be re­vised or amended on the ba­sis of a fewex­treme cases. Be­sides, fig­ures re­leased by the Supreme People’s Procu­ra­torate in May show that the num­ber and ra­tio of ju­ve­niles fac­ing prose­cu­tion have re­mark­ably de­clined in re­cent years. And al­though the age of ju­ve­nile delin­quents has grad­u­ally dropped, most of the ju­ve­niles pros­e­cuted were be­tween 16 and 18 years old.

De­spite these facts, if the au­thor­i­ties want to lower the min­i­mum age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity, they should launch a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion and con­duct a na­tion­wide study to prove that ju­ve­niles be­low the age of 14 meet the moral and psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nents of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity in to­day’s so­ci­ety.

More im­por­tantly, low­er­ing the min­i­mum age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity alone will not solve the prob­lem. As ShiWeizhong, a se­nior of­fi­cial of the Supreme People’s Procu­ra­torate, said, there’s a gap be­tween ju­ve­niles and adults in terms of sub­jec­tive aware­ness. Even if a ju­ve­nile com­mits a crime that se­ri­ously en­dan­gers so­ci­ety, it doesn’t mean that he/she has de­vel­oped into a real crim­i­nal per­son­al­ity; at best he/she can be seen as an “il­le­gal per­son­al­ity”.

Given ju­ve­niles’ stage of men­tal de­vel­op­ment, se­vere pun­ish­ment plays a limited role in pre­vent­ing ju­ve­nile delin­quency. In­stead, se­vere pun­ish­ment could have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on their mind and turn them into hard­ened crim­i­nals. Also, by be­ing be­hind bars with adult crim­i­nals or be­ing la­beled as crim­i­nals, ju­ve­niles could fall vic­tim to re­cidi­vism. More­over, treat­ing ju­ve­niles as hard­ened crim­i­nals is against the global prac­tice of ju­ve­nile pro­tec­tion.

The real prob­lem is not the min­i­mu­mage of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity, but the fail­ure of so­ci­ety to pro­vide nec­es­sary su­per­vi­sion, treat­ment and help to ju­ve­nile delin­quents with­out as­crib­ing “crim­i­nal in­tent” to their acts.

The La­won Preven­tion of Ju­ve­nile Delin­quency only re­quires guardians and schools to dis­ci­pline chil­dren with se­ri­ous mis­con­duct, while vo­ca­tional schools (which don’t pro­vide good ed­u­ca­tion) are the only le­gal op­tion for delin­quents. Com­pared with some other coun­tries, China does not have enough so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions and mech­a­nisms, ex­cept for ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties, to help “se­ri­ous prob­lem chil­dren”.

Pro­tec­tion should not mean in­dul­gence. Cau­tiously hand­ing down pun­ish­ment to ju­ve­niles doesn’t mean that they should be sim­ply sent back to their par­ents af­ter com­mit­ting se­ri­ous of­fences.

Such an act sig­ni­fies ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior to­ward chil­dren as well as so­ci­ety. In Chongqing’s case, the girl “tor­tured” the one-year-old boy be­fore throw­ing him from the 25th floor, yet her par­ents de­nied that she had been suf­fer­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems.

The au­thor­i­ties can­not do any­thing with the girl, al­though she needs help from out­side her fam­ily.

There­fore, it’s time the govern­ment pro­vided nec­es­sary cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties (in­clud­ing so­cial work­shops, com­mu­nity train­ing cen­ters and psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion) to ju­ve­nile delin­quents to help their all-round per­son­al­ity de­vel­op­ment, which would be a bet­ter way of fight­ing ju­ve­nile delin­quency than low­er­ing the min­i­mum age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity or send­ing ado­les­cents to jail for their vi­o­lent acts. The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. wangy­iqing@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

WANG XIAOYING / CHINA DAILY

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