Smooth-faced criminals

If your teenager was found guilty of a serious crime, what would be fair punishment?

Would you expect him or her to be sentenced as a child, or as an adult?

The constitutional court last week heard arguments against and for an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Act, passed late last year.

The law, currently under review by the constitutional court, leans towards treating 16 and 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to serious crimes such as rape or murder. The nature of these crimes is so heinous, it may seem logical that the price to be paid should be the same. As the law stands, minimum sentences for offenders of this age are effectively the same as for adults. But can a 16-year-old be seen in the exact same light as an adult offender?

Nicro has entered into the role of friend of the court in the constitutional court challenge, which is being driven by the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.

“Nicro feels that children need to be treated differently,” explains Arina Smit, Nicro’s Manager for Research and Development. “They are not the same as adults, because of their stage of development. It’s not a matter of chronological age only, but of developmental age.”

But what else is there to do with a teenager who is found guilty of a serious crime?

“We’re not saying that 16 or 17-year-olds who are a danger to themselves and others should walk around free in society,” explains Smit. “We do not believe children who commit crimes should get away with no consequences – the consequences however must be of such nature that learning and development can take place – and that confinement in a place like prison should be a last resort.

“What could be worse punishment than having to acknowledge your wrongdoings and facing your most inner fears and weaknesses -- and realising that if you do not change you are failing  yourself, your family and society at large?”

It’s the familiar debate of punishment – an eye for an eye – versus rehabilitation. Some members of society may feel it is not worth giving up the deterrent of more severe sentencing, for the hope of rehabilitating these teenagers into useful future members of society.
“There are a number of programs and community interventions that can be of help for young offenders,” Smit adds. “We would like to see the courts given more discretion in deciding how to sentence children of this age.”

And if the law were to stay as it is, what then of 15 or 14-year-old criminals? Why should they be treated differently?

Judgement was reserved in the case and will be given when the court is ready.

Why do we draw the line where we do? How should teenage offenders be handled?
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