In the last several years, juvenile delinquency has been on the rise, and as it appears more frequently in the public eye, the types of crimes have become more diverse. The criminal methods are sophisticated, and the extent of violence is increasing. In view of such a situation, there is a groundswell of support for the idea of lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Supporters think that it acts as a deterrent while opponents think it enlarges the scope of the law and labels kids as criminals.
In May 2016, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate gave their answer: A decrease in the age for criminal liability will require wide-scale experimentation and research. That’s definitely a cautious statement. But the legislature will eventually have to make a final decision—to decrease or not? From a utilitarian perspective, decreasing the age of criminal liability can act as a deterrent on juvenile crime in the short term, but as the law and the study of criminology develop, there are no clear statistics that show a positive or negative correlation between degree of criminal liability and amount of underage crime.
But that doesn’t mean that the age of responsibility can’t or shouldn’t be decreased.
Because it’s necessary for Criminal Law to be just, it’s necessary to decrease the age of criminal liability for serious crimes. Criminal legislation should pay attention to both the actor and the criminal act. From the perspective of the actor, minors merit special considerations as they are immature physically and mentally. But seen from the criminal act and its consequence, underage criminal behavior violates the law just the same as adult behavior. Today’s minors, who are mature at an early age, should take criminal responsibility so that the principle of “the punishment fitting the crime” can really be achieved.
When we talk about underage crime, we can’t just focus on education and reform. Actually, criminal penalties are a form of education—which can also prevent crime. We shouldn’t take punishment and prevention as opposites.
As for the “side effects” of decreasing the age of criminal liability—like lifelong stigma or difficulty reintegrating into society— we are not without solutions. For example, Article 100 of Criminal Law states that any person who is given a criminal punishment shall, when joining the army or getting a job, report truthfully whether they have ever been criminally prosecuted and shall not conceal the fact. But when it comes to crimes committed as minors, the obligation of reporting is discharged. Community regulations and the careful procuratorial and trial work on underage crime all provide procedural protection for minors who have entered the justice system.