Understanding Children in Conflict with the Law

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Member since August 14, 2017
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Photo by Robert Hickerson

Photo by Robert Hickerson

At what age can an individual judge what is right from wrong? At what age should an individual be liable for his/her actions?

In 2011, 13-year-old Cristian Fernandez pleaded guilty to murdering his two-year-old sibling in Florida. He confessed shoving his sibling into a bookshelf, causing a skull fracture and internal bleeding, which eventually killed the toddler. He was tried and sentenced in an adult criminal court. He was 13. He was a child. He killed his sibling. Was it just to process his case in an adult criminal court? I pose this questions to open a topic that has long been lingering in my head – the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR).

The MACR is the lowest age at which children may potentially be held criminally responsible for their alleged crimes. Globally, the MACR for different countries ranges from no minimum age to 16 years old. In some places, the MACR can be waived – that is, the child suspect may be transferred from a juvenile court to a criminal court if certain conditions are met, just as what happened to Cristian. Approximately 1 million children around the world are behind bars, many of whom are in violent, abusive facilities which expose them to different kinds of threats and abuse; some are even imprisoned with adult criminals. Worse, in some countries, children can receive the death penalty.

But in the first place, are children really to blame for what they have done?

Biologically speaking, not really. Our brains continue to develop even after puberty. In fact, the part of our brain concerned with making correct decisions is not fully developed until we reach 25. Thus, since we have not yet reached our brains’ maximum capacity, we are still very much susceptible to making incorrect choices. This finding is reflected in Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. He suggested that abstract thinking, the highest level of reason, only begins at 11 years and continues on until adulthood, depending on our rate of learning. My point here is, from a biological and psychological standpoint, children cannot yet fully understand the consequences of their actions and judge right from wrong accurately.

However, it is not just our brain development that influences our capacity to make logically sound and moral decisions. There is also an argument that children commit crimes not because they do not know what they are doing, but because of necessity. Poverty, coupled with conditions such as “lack of opportunity, inequality, exclusion, the availability of drugs and firearms” among others, can push an individual to commit crimes in order to survive. We cannot discount the fact that we are heavily influenced by our environment and the circumstances in which we live in. Understandably, because children have yet to develop their ability to make good and accurate judgments, they rely on what they see in their environment and from other people as their standard for morality. Cristian, for instance, was a product of his father’s sexual assault of his then 12-year old mother; he had been in foster care; was exposed to drugs; and was beaten up by his by his stepfather and cousin. Clearly, he was a product of an environment in chaos. Would he have killed his brother had he been raised in more conducive circumstances?

Children in Conflict with the Law (CICL) should not be seen as criminals, rather, they should be seen as victims. Whether we adopt a brain development or societal view, it all boils down to the fact that these children must be helped rather than penalized. Still, the law is the law, and there will always be a MACR.

So, at what age should the MACR be? Some organizations, such as UNICEF, recommend at least 13 years old, which goes well with Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. This said, these children must still be tried in juvenile courts, and not given the same treatment as adult criminals. However, my personal take on the issue is at least 18, the same age in which people can already vote in many countries. If an individual cannot exercise his/her constitutional right to vote, then why should he/she be subjected to legal and criminal repercussions for his/her actions?

If the MACR is set at 18 years old, when the accused is not classified as a child anymore, then what should we do with CICL, such as Cristian, aged below 18? I firmly believe that imprisonment is not the answer. Instead, we should adopt diversion programs for them to help them move on and make better persons of themselves. In fact, these programs have been shown to be more effective than traditional judicial conventions. Some of existing programs help CICL complete their education and were seen to be highly successful, as some even manage to improve parent-child relationships. It is important to emphasize that rehabilitating a child should also involve the family. In the cases of CICL who may have experienced traumatic events, it is integral that they undergo psychological or psychiatric treatment.

Still, prevention is better than cure. If we want to prevent children from committing crimes, we must work together to alleviate the conditions that trigger it. In addition to familial support – that is, increased parental support for children – systemic changes such as holistic economic and educational reforms should be made to ensure that children do not engage in criminal behavior. I am sure, that there are many children out there like Cristian, who committed mistakes because of so many factors that were out of their control. Let us work together in making the world a better place — a world where children are not pushed to commit crimes, and a world that is forgiving and understanding of them.

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