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Debate: Strict punishment of child offenders

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Is stricter punishment the answer to juvenile crime?

Background and context

Juvenile justice is the area of criminal law applicable to persons not old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts. In most states in the US, the age for criminal culpability is set at 18 years. In England the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, Other countries have ages of criminal responsibility between these extremes, for example, Turkey (14), Romania (12), Greece (12), Spain (15); Belgium and Luxembourg also both set it at 18. The key issues in this debate are whether we should punish juveniles more in line with adult punishment, or whether there should be special treatment for them.

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Argument #1

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Yes

The primary purpose of a justice is the prevention of crime and the protection of the innocent. It is to achieve these purposes that children should not be entitled to lenient punishment. The purposes of punishment are proportional retribution, deterrence and prevention of crime. Rehabilitation should at best be a secondary aim.

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No

Child crime is different from adult crime in that the offenders are, in most legal systems, not deemed to be fully conscious moral individuals. As such, the best way to deal with them is through rehabilitation rather than punishment.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Punishing children more leniently than adults undermines the deterrent value of punishment. In 1998 in the US, 29% of all high school boys own guns. The message being sent out would be that if children committed crime that would be all right. In the state of Virginia in a 1996 survey for example, 41% of youth have at various times either been in a gang or associated with gang activities. Of this, 69% said they joint because friends were involved and 60% joined for ‘excitement’. This clearly shows that youth do not take crime seriously because of the belief that they will be leniently treated.

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No

The deterrence theory assumes that all crime is committed by a rational evaluation. If indeed 8 or 10 year old children are capable of making rational calculations, then the prospect of spending several years in reform school should be no less a deterrent then spending the time in jail. It is still a curtailment of their liberty and if they are rational, they would not want their liberty curtailed. The real problem is that most crime are committed by people who do not make such rational calculations before hand.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The "desert" theory of punishment argues that the retribution taken by society against an offender should be proportional to the harm he has caused the victim. For example, a person who kills is more culpable than a person who robs or hurts. As the harm caused by children is no more than that caused by adults in a similar offence, they should not be entitled to special treatment. The assumption that children are not as morally culpable as adults is false, and countries like England recognise the age of criminal responsibility as 12 years.

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No

Subjective culpability should play as important a part in punishment as the harm principle. That is why murder is punished more severely than negligent manslaughter, even though both cause the same harm. Children are not capable of making the same moral judgements as adults. That is why children are no allowed to vote, drive or watch certain movies. It is in recognition of the inability of children to form moral judgments that makes them have less subjective culpability and therefore worthy of lighter punishment.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The best way to prevent crime in the short run is to lock up the offenders. This prevents them from immediately harming society. The longer term solution is that children who have been imprisoned from recalcitrance by the memory of the harsh punishment.

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No

This is an argument that would justify imprisoning anyone for life, as that is the surest way to prevent them harming anyone. As this is plainly ridiculous, it must be accepted that locking a person up is at best a short term remedy and the long term answer lies in rehabilitation.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Rehabilitation (counselling and psychiatric treatment) is a soft option that will make children believe that they are spending short periods of time in a holiday camp. In the US, more than half the boys who were put under counselling orders after offences rather then under detention ended up re-offending during the period they were undergoing counselling. It is better if whatever rehabilitation programme is planned takes place in some sort of detention facility. They can still be separated from hardened adult criminals, but that does not mean they should not be detained for similar periods of time.

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No

The only long term solution to juvenile crime is reform of the child. Children are more susceptible to reform and the rates of recalcitrance for child offenders under counselling in the US is significantly lower than that of adult offenders. Even if some end up re-offending, it does mean that just under half of those who had been given the chance to return to normal life took up that chance and did not re-offend. Putting them in a prison, and even worst with adult offenders is likely to increase the chance of recalcitrance because they will be in the same environment as other offenders who will be a negative influence on them.

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