Harsh punishment for child offenders doesn’t prevent further criminality
Op-Ed – Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility from UNICEF Representative in Viet Nam, Mr Youssouf Abdel-Jelil
The age at which a child, can be held criminally liable is a controversial issue around the world. Within Viet Nam, this issue is currently being grappled with in the Penal Code amendments. Some argue that a “get tough on crime” approach is necessary to punish children to prevent further criminality.
However, international research shows that because of their developmental stages, labelling and treating children as criminals at an early age can have serious negative impacts on their development and successful rehabilitation.Proposals to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility are not in line with scientific evidence that a child’s brain is structurally and functionally immature, which influences decision-making and increases their tendency to engage in risky behaviors during adolescence. Science has also shown that children are more likely to “grow out” of such behavior.
If they can be influenced into committing crime by ill-intentioned groups, it is also true that children have the formidable capacity to be influenced to do good if they are offered a proper rehabilitation programme instead of being given harsh punishment.
Viet Nam has been a child rights pioneer for over 25 years and the recent implementation of the Child Law is a major step forward. This law enhances children’s rights by focusing on their best interests and protection. Further, new amendments to the Penal Code seek to ensure stronger measures to divert juveniles away from the criminal justice system; to provide alternatives and stronger limits to the detention of juveniles; and to provide stronger protections against various forms of violence against minors.
In light of these positive child rights advancements, amendments to the Penal Code decreasing the minimum age of criminal responsibility for certain crimes can be seen as a major step back in the protection of children’s rights.
International standards require all States to establish and set a single age below which a child cannot have the legal capacity to infringe the penal law. The Committee on the Rights of the Child strongly recommends that an appropriate age for criminal responsibility is between 14 and 16 years. Currently, Vietnam is one of the few East Asian and Pacific countries in line with this recommendation. The Vietnamese law has a tiered minimum age of criminal responsibility in which all children above 16 years can be held liable for infringing the penal law, and those between 14 and 16 can also be held liable for certain types of offences.
The propensity of children to offending is heavily influenced by factors such as the child’s family, school, or community where children are exposed to risky behaviors. Evidence indicates that “getting tough” or “scaring” children out of misbehavior always fails, as this approach does not address the underlying causes of their behavior. Indeed, detention of children merely exposes them to more negative behavior and generally pushes them further into a criminal lifestyle.
As the evidence suggest that incarcerating children is not effective in rehabilitation and prevention of future offending, laws should not be made harsher. As adolescence is a time when children can be influenced for the better or worse, rehabilitation and reintegration must be the main goal.
UNICEF is calling for amendments to the Penal Code which do not widen the net of child offenders who bear criminal responsibility and in essence amounts to a lower age of criminal responsibility. Children aged 14-16 years should only bear criminal responsibility for the 28 listed very serious and extremely serious crimes. We are confident that Viet Nam will pursue a more holistic solution to child offending which does not criminalise children, but rather focuses on addressing the root causes of the children’s behaviour. This approach encourages children to take responsibility for their actions, and provides them with proper rehabilitation services that facilitate their reintegration as productive members of society.