Treat delinquents with kid gloves
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.