The bill sponsored by Security Minister Patricia Bullrich to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 15 is more valuable as a pointer toward a likely line of rhetoric in the upcoming election campaign than as an effective crime-fighting tool.
Before entering into any detail, it should be pointed out that this measure is a contradiction of a fundamental political philosophy of the Mauricio Macri administration – the approach of working out all problems “together.” Some of the comments from officials this week lashing out at opposition ‘abolitionists’ who are allegedly more interested in protecting criminals than the victims of their crimes indicate a move again toward a polarisation which would seem to give the electioneering game away. At the very least this is simplistic – the weight of ‘abolitionist’ opinion within the opposition becomes highly relative when looking at some of Sergio Massa’s rhetoric or considering that Kirchnerism took a step toward militarising domestic security by placing an Army lieutenantcolonel (Sergio Berni) at its helm, years before anybody had heard of the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In reality a cumbersome legal system urgently needing reform does far more to block justice for criminals than tiny pockets of idealists. But most importantly, it is vital to address the problem directly rather than telling vast sectors of the general public fed up with crime what they want to hear or upholding lofty principles.
Starting with the age of criminal responsibility itself, lowering it from 16 to 15 seems more irrelevant than anything else. Justice Minister Germán Garavano’s claim that “a youngster first understands the criminal nature of his actions as from the age of 15” sounds particularly arbitrary. If, as the government constantly tells us with much reason, drug-trafficking (whose defeat was one of Macri’s three main 2015 campaign promises) is a prime factor leading children into crime, are we to understand that neighbourhood dealers scrupulously abstain until their targets have reached the age of 15? The age of criminal responsibility is often criticised for supplying a loophole for gangs cynically using the underaged to commit their crimes so that they go unpunished but this bill would hardly discourage any such latter-day Fagins – they would simply recruit even younger and more vulnerable children with possibly a greater use of firearms to offset their lack of size. The real reason for this age of 15 is political – the government has been warned against repeating their 2017 initiative of 14 (as still sought by Bullrich) since it would jeopardise parliamentary passage.
Nor do the statistics favour this bill – according to those available, the percentage of those detained for homicide under the age of 16 remains in the low single digits. There are fewer statistics for less serious crimes (which might well end up not being included in this bill) – harder to say if the percentages of under-16s picking pockets or snatching mobile telephones are more significant. But neither side should approach this debate without doing far more to ground their arguments in numerical realities.
Yet perhaps the most important question of all is neglected by both sides of the argument – if those aged 15 are held criminally responsible, how are they to be punished? The prime responsibility here falls on those sponsoring this bill – even if it does make a serious dent in the crime rate (a fact open to doubt), it would still be unacceptable if it sent teens to overcrowded prisons which are notoriously universities of crime. Yet the onus for working out civilised special systems for juvenile delinquents does not only fall on the government – if critics offer nothing constructive here, there could be a serious danger of police massacres of street kids along Brazilian lines. A blanket rejection of ‘Bolsonarisation’ is not good enough.
It seems a deeply flawed bill but Bullrich is right on at least one point – that crime victims deserve more attention than the criminals. A preventive approach based on achieving a fairer society is the ideal answer, even if “zero poverty” (another of Macri’s three main 2015 campaign promises), does not necessarily mean zero crime, but an impatience for quicker answers is understandable when nobody sees this fairer society as around the corner after seven decades of inflation. A serious answer to crime is the one “debt to society” shared by all politicians.