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Gov’t opens debate on lowering age of criminal responsibility to 14

Although the government has not formally presented a bill nor a concrete plan, officials have proposed a national debate on the possibility of bringing down the age of criminal responsibility.

Justice Minister calls for consensus on reform that has been questioned by UNICEF and divided opinion

The government has proposed a national debate on the possibility of lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 14, reopening an on-and-off issues and sparking immediate rejection and approval from various political sectors.

Justice Minister Germán Garavano, the visible face of the government’s campaign, has denied that there is any electoral motivations behind the proposal, noting that President Mauricio Macri personally backed the effort to discuss the matter. As such, the Macri administration has not formally presented a bill nor a concrete plan, simply urging technical discussions with experts and stakeholders so that in 2018 a law may be passed.

Despite the government’s protests, the midterm elections later this year may end up including elements of this proposal given that it has already proven divisive in previous campaigns.

Juvenile criminal reform on the table

“Today the government’s position is that there is a situation in that age group of 15 years that must be covered by a law, but following a consensus with UNICEF and the entire political class,” said Garavano this week, noting that the UN body does not agree with lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

Noting that the limit could be dropped to 15 and not 14, Garavano said that the process by which adolescents enter into criminal activity takes place over time.

“It’s not like youths just arrive and kill someone, but rather that there is a process of degradation and at the same time, neglect by the family, the state and society.” As such the Justice minister noted that youths engaged in violence are “victims” at the same time as they are perpetrators and “it is necessary that the state place a greater amount of resources in the initial stages, that is to say prevention.”

In conversation with Télam, UNICEF’s María Angeles Misuraca said that the existing legislation “is incompatible with the rights of children. It’s a law that was made during the dictatorship, with a tutorial approach, and which must be amended.” Misuraca was categorical in the rejection of lowering the age of responsibility, calling it “a step backwards.”

“UNICEF is interested instead in that there be an increase in alternative measures to the deprivation of freedom,” she added.

“The main axis of the juvenile criminal system should be prevention, and distant from criminal law,” in keeping with the safeguards in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Argentina is a party to,

and thus it enjoys constitutional status.

According to a UNICEF study, in 2015 there are 82 children under the age of 16 currently in custody (6.3 percent of all minors in state custody in youth institutes), with another 789 aged between 16 and 17 also in state care. The remainder are youths who are over 18 but committed infractions when they were minors. In total, 1,305 youths are in custody. The UN body has noted that while Brazil has set the age of criminal responsibility at 18, countries such as, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela have set theirs at 14. The age of criminal responsibility dips to 12 in some of the most violent countries in the world such as El Salvador, Honduras as well as in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Mexico. In Uruguay the age of criminal responsibility is 13.

SERPAJ, the foundation led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, expressed its concern about the announcement, and noted that “as we have done for years, we believe that a measure like this is not a solution to the problems of crime. There are comprehensive arguments and statistics that show that lowering the age of criminal responsibility does not have an effect on criminality” and that it only stigmatised youths.

Political stances

There have been multiple efforts to bring down the age from which minors can be criminally prosecuted in the last 20 years, with many of the bills failing to make it out of committee.

Many of those efforts were sparked by a series of crimes committed by minors but a lack of political consensus has ensured that not much progress was made.In 2009 the Senate was able to pass a bill that brought down the age of criminal responsibility but it failed to make it through the Lower House. There are currently five bills in Congress dealing with juvenile criminal matters, but not all of them reduce the age of responsibility.

Sergio Massa of the Renewal Front, who has long espoused a law and order approach with stiffer prison terms and the lowering of the age of responsibility, has recently built political links with Margarita Stolbizer of the Progressives. Immediately after the government floated the the debate she reiterated her total opposition to such a measure, setting up an awkward tension with her new political associate. As such, both Stolbizer and Massa yesterday called on the government to take the matter before Congress in February in a special session.

“I was the first to note the need to reduce the age of criminal responsibility and I thank the government that it has taken up our initiative to begin to resolve this scourge. But both and I and Margarita are convinced that the reduction in the age by itself, is without a doubt, a measure that doesn’t resolve the issue” Massa said yesterday. In turn, Stolbizer focused on education reform and addiction treatment programmes as part of a more comprehensive approach.

Herald staff

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