A poll published in February 2009 by Perspective Suisse, shows that over 70 per cent of Swiss citizens wish to apply adult criminal standards to minors in case of serious crime. In France, this wish is becoming reality : the Varinard report published last February introduced a proposal to lower the age of criminal liability to 12 years, and to have 16-18 old minors judged under adult legislation, thus going against the provisions of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child signed by all the European governments. Last week the French government even announced its intention to abolish the position of Children’s Ombudsman, established in 2000.
At this juncture enforcement seems to be taking the upper hand over education. However the US experience shows how negative this trend can be. Last July a particularly alarming study by the University of Texas in Austin showed the disastrous outcomes of judiciary practice consisting of trying and punishing children under 13 as adults.
According to this study all American states allow for youths over 13 to be tried as adults. And out of these states, 22 lowered this threshold to 7 years : they include Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South-Carolina, which even have laws facilitating the transfer of children to adult courts ! Yearly, an average of 80 children under 13 are transferred to adult jurisdictions. Between 1985 and 2004, 1645 children served adult sentences, including life without parole. What’s more, half of them had committed only property or public order offenses.
And this strategy, as is proved by the Texas study , proves to be as expensive as it is counter-productive : juveniles prosecuted as adults tend to become repeating offenders and cost twice as much. In fact scientific research proves that a child’s brain continues to evolve, which affects the child’s impulses, and ability to control his/her actions. A child needs a protective environment, free of the sexual abuse and physical violence that are so pervasive in detention. The child must benefit from education and rehabilitation measures, to become, if possible, a stable adult.
“Locking up minors is no solution for rehabilitation, nor for the protection of society, nor for education.” concludes the author of the study, Michele Deitch, who advocates a revision of the laws allowing for children to be prosecuted as adults. In this respect, 2010 will be a turning point : the US Congress will be re-examining a 1974 law, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which makes it mandatory for states to enforce special laws applying to minors in juvenile matters in order to remain eligible for federal funding.
Let us hope that the lessons learnt from the American experience will be heeded by all those who are convinced that a youth – although supposedly unfit to drive or vote before his or her eighteenth birthday – is nonetheless fully liable for the crimes he or she commits.