In lieu of positive economic data, the national government has kicked off the electoral year with a wave of announcements focused on crime and safety.
Public debate during the first week of the new year centred on the Security Ministry’s intention to purchase Taser electrical weapons and the deportation of foreigners with criminal records. The second week of 2019 has been about a move to reduce the age of criminal responsibility.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, well positioned as a key member of the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition’s hierarchy, was charged with making the announcement.
“Security conditions will change and this depends on creating a social and educational regime which, when a minor commits a robbery, irrespective of their age, he or she will enter into a system that addresses such behaviour, which is burdensome for society,” Bullrich said in an interview with Radio Mitre.
It is not the first time Cambiemos has sought to move toward stricter legislation regarding youth criminality. The plan was first put to Congress during President Mauricio Macri’s annual legislative address in March 2017. The following year Justice and Human Rights Minister Germán Garavano began drafting a bill.
The new proposal received criticism this week from some sectors of society who suggested the government had trailed the move solely motivated by its desire to win the general and presidential elections in October.
“If we want to address social and educational issues for young people, we have schools, educational areas or those that deal directly with the protection of rights. The penal system does not guarantee these rights but serves to punish. That is not a social and educational function,” said Claudia Cesaroni from the Criminal and Human Rights Policies Study Centre (CEPOC).
“There are other ways to address this issue for youths aged 14 to 15. We know the penal system is selective, discriminatory. It damages people and we do not want younger and younger people exposed to it,” the lawyer and criminologist added.
She described the government’s moves as “politics,” saying there were no statistics to back up claims about improved security.
Statistics about youth criminality are scarce and, at best, incomplete. The latest data from the National Youth Secretariat (SENAF) and UNICEF dates back to 2015.
Their report indicated that 1,305 youths were “deprived of their liberty” or detained at the time and that 82 of them were younger than 16 years of age (6.3 percent); a further 789 were between 16 and 17 years of age (60.5 percent); while the rest, who were 18 or older, had committed their crimes when they were still minors.
A recent report from the Magistrates Council about crime in Buenos Aires City, meanwhile, indicated that among the 221 people accused of homicide in the capital only seven were younger than 18, representing 3.17 percent of the total.
The most recent data from Buenos Aires province came from the provincial Supreme Court which suggested 3.3 percent of all crimes were committed by “underage individuals” in 2017.
The assistant ombudsman in that province, Walter Martello, released a report on Tuesday based on official data showing “a sustained drop since 2013 in homicides committed by people under the age of 18.”
The data suggested that while in 2009 there were 165 Preparatory Criminal Investigations (IPP) under way into homicide committed by youths, in 2017 this number dropped to 88, having peaked in 2013 at 176.
CALLS FOR REFORM
“The issue is poorly contextualised,” said Cesaroni, who nonetheless said she believed the penal code for youth offenders should be looked at and reformed. “If there were hundreds of young people killing others, we would have to do something about it, but it is not the case.”
“The current legislation dates to the dictatorship and was signed into law by [Jorge] Videla. We must remove it and create a new system but without lowering the age of criminal responsibility” the CEPOC researcher argued.
“There is no solid argument to do so. A year ago, [the Macri government] wanted to lower it to 14 and now they say 15. So, what was the basis for wanting to lower it to 14 if that idea can now so easily be pushed aside?”
Judge Mariano Borinsky of Tribunal IV of the Federal Appeals Court agreed.
Borinsky, who led the last committee into penal code reform, said overhauling the law is “fundamental.”
“The law around youth criminality is from 1980, in the same way as the Penal Code is from 1921. To address it in terms of public debate is very important because the youth system is obsolete in the same way as the Penal Code,” he told this journalist.
However, Borinsky defended the proposed move to reduce the age of criminal responsibility, arguing that if it were lowered to 15 “Argentina would still have the highest age [of criminal responsibility] compared to other countries in the continent.”
“With regards to other countries in Latin America: Brazil, Costa Rica and Ecuador set theirs at 12 years; Nicaragua, Guatemala and Uruguay, at 13 years; Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay, at 14 years. Considering this in comparative law, we would have the highest age,” he said.
The judge saw the debate, in some way, as cause for celebration, saying that “for the first time ever, we are debating an integrated system surrounding age and social reinsertion and a social and educational system for youths, establishing more modern limits and new mechanism which relate to compliance with youth policy.”
“For example, by establishing alternative punishment for cases with maximum sentencing of three years, home detention, detention in open centres or in specialised centres,” he added.