The vicious assailant of the Incheon Elementary School Murder that took place this March was no other than a teenage girl who had dropped out of high school. Documented cases of Middle School bullying incidents in Busan and Gangneung were also led by teenagers. With the sudden increase of juvenile delinquencies recently, Korean netizens are deeply concerned with how those young criminals are to be penalized. The hot potato of this issue would be the “Juvenile Law” which, contrary to its original purpose, is unintentionally allowing for teenage criminals to avoid harsh and appropriate degrees of punishment. Naturally the wave of protest, demanding the amendment of current juvenile law, is surging quickly amidst the chaotic public. According to Realmeter’s poll, up to 90% of all respondents agreed to an amendment, and it really seems inevitable to bring up a serious discussion regarding this issue. (The petition campaign aimed at abolishment of the “Juvenile Protection Act” is only a mistake caused by the similarity of terminology. It is different from the juvenile law.)
What Exactly Is Juvenile Law?
Juvenile law, misunderstood as “a slap on the wrist” by the outraged public, is actually a law with the purpose of reforming teenage criminals. Therefore, juvenile law focuses not on punishing criminals lightly but on “why” and “how” the teens are being punished. Still, it is an undeniable truth the penalties are relatively softer than ordinary law. For example, even in cases of death penalty or life imprisonment, the penalties are reduced to a maximum of 15 years (But for specific violent crimes, the maximum is exceptionally extended to a 20-years sentence). To apply for the standards of juvenile law, a criminal must be under the age of 19 by court day. If a criminal’s age surpasses 19 at court day, he cannot be protected by juvenile law even if the crime occurred before turning 19. Additionally, the minimum age for criminal liability is 14, and most criminals below the age of 14 are subject to protective disposition (e.g. sent to Youth Detention Centers).
Why are Adults and Teenagers Differentiated in Law?
This may not be easily understandable by ordinary people, but still, adults and teenagers are lawfully differentiated on their punishment levels. In fact, recent teenage crimes are becoming more and more violent on the verge of nullifying any reason for separating adults and teens in court decisions. However, juvenile law takes into consideration the fundamental causes, motives, and responsibilities of the crimes. Therefore, it decides teenagers are (on average) less mature and conscious for their own actions, not to mention they are not solely responsible for whichever crime it is. The factors additionally taken into account are social environments, lack of self-control, and even family backgrounds. (In fact, according to the National Police Agency’s statistics, 50.8% of juvenile delinquencies are caused by criminals from the lower class, while the upper class accounts for just 0.8%).
Weaknesses Shown by the Juvenile Law
Then is juvenile law truly able to work for the purpose of teenage criminal reformation? We must first investigate a couple of the incidents that initiated this year’s controversy on juvenile law. Above all, it seems difficult to expect some satisfactory sentences on teenage crimes from courts. Although the Incheon Elementary School Murder was a planned, grotesque crime against a perfectly innocent kid, the criminal is still sentenced a maximum of 20 years according to juvenile law. Moreover, it is very likely the 20-year sentence will shrink considering various circumstances, such as the existence of mental illnesses (Kim, the criminal, insists she is suffering the Asperger’s syndrome). How about the Middle School Bullying incident in Busan? This was another well-organized, intentional yet difficult-to-punish (harshly) crime due to the juvenile law. Since the vicious attackers turned themselves in, only a light penalty is predicted to be charged. One of them is even under the age of 14, which means she is free from criminal punishment.
Another side-effect of this juvenile law is that it is proving to be ineffective in its original attempt to make criminals reflect and regret. The 17-year-old murderer Kim seemed uninfluenced, even after shedding the blood of a younger girl, when she uploaded everyday postings on her SNS or text-messaged the accomplice for the making of an alibi. She was surprisingly calm even in court, repeating her hateful blames about the Asperger’s syndrome. It sure seemed she was more interested in how to reduce her sentence by laying part of the guilt on her mentally impaired situation, not on regretting the murder. Likewise, one member of the Busan Bullying incident uploaded an article on her SNS, insisting she “regretted” using inappropriate, profane language. “Stop blaming me, or I will accuse you of defamation!” Even considering the youth of the incident’s perpetrators, such behavior is not something to be tolerated, especially in cases featuring a serious degree of crime. The photo text will probably make it easy for most people to figure out whether this is true regret or not.
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Incheon Elementary School Murder
This horrendous murder was committed by a 16-year old high school dropout. She kidnapped a young elementary school girl the age of only eight, first murdering her with a battery charging cable and then viciously hacking her body into pieces. Every process of the meticulously planned crime was dealt with in just three hours. (2017.03.29)
Busan Middle School Bullying Incident
School bullying committed by four middle schoolers consisting of two second graders and two third graders. The victim was a second grader attending a different middle school, and her bloody photos were sent to a high schooler who, infuriated by the bullying, reported the perpetrators to the police. It was known the victim was beaten so harshly her health was in critical condition. (2017.09.01)
But Is the Korean Juvenile Law Insufficient, Really?
However, it would be also misleading to turn the blame on juvenile law’s relatively soft levels of punishment. Examining foreign juvenile laws, we can discover that the minimum age for criminal liability varies from ages 7 to 18, with major countries, including Canada and France, specifying it as more or less than age 13. Amongst those countries, Korea is just staying on average (14). Even the United States, with the exception of some states, has decided on the age of 18, which is higher than that of Korea (only that vicious teenage crimes are often sentenced “life imprisonment with parole ineligible”). Therefore, regarding the minimum age of criminal liability, it would be difficult to say Korea’s juvenile law is ever more generous to the criminals compared to foreign countries. The US, Germany, and the UK already make use of independent “juvenile courts” when coping with teenage criminals. These countries also hold more positive perspectives towards helping delinquents socialize back into society as well.
How Potential Amendments Should Go
It is an unrealistic option to repeal the juvenile law completely. But as the public wants, there are a few measures to take regarding the law’s amendment and meanwhile, there was actually a specific motion requesting for amendment on the 7th of September. According to the motion for amendment, the minimum age for criminal liability is to be decreased to 12, and the maximum sentence for specific violent crimes is to be increased to 30 years. Parole requirements grew from 3 years to a maximum of 8 years, too.
Of course, if the motion is adopted, it seems obvious punishments on delinquencies will be harsher from now on even within the influence of juvenile law. But would such superficial changes help fulfill the law’s original purpose, of reforming teenage criminals? Upgrading sentences does not necessarily mean crime rates are suppressed, and cannot be effective in any way to unearth more of the often-concealed school bullying cases. Therefore, lawmakers must first revise how protective dispositions (currently for those under the age of 14) do not end up on one’s criminal record, for the prevention of the repetition of same incidents. It is difficult, even in common sense, to comprehend the fact that past “criminals” are given opportunities to live inside society just as any other ordinary man. What’s more, facts should no longer be covered up during processes of investigation and trial. The 2005 Gaeseong Middle School Murder was recorded as “accidental” despite its horrible violence and one-sidedness. The murderer, after several assaults on his classmate, led a poor student to death but got away with weak punishments. The case was not properly exposed to the media as well. It is known that the criminal is living an ordinary life without much guilt or restriction at any level.
In fact, the controversy over the juvenile law, which demands for law amendments and even calls for repeal, does appear to have been issued forth all of a sudden. Although violent teenage crimes happened steadily from the past, they have become the center of attention in a few recent series of delinquencies. What is left is mere shouts for punishment, not real “discussions” on the issue. If the issue is not to be a temporal wave of rage, there must be a long-term solution which is capable of handling not only extreme cases, but also common, everyday delinquencies as well.
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