In the media nowadays, it is easy to encounter news related to juvenile delinquency. The frequency of juvenile delinquency shown to the public eye is rapidly increasing and the contradictory reality of the young assailants living normal lives with no shame while the victims live in nightmares is causing people to raise their voices in criticism that the government needs to speed up the process of taking prompt action towards the situation.
The Status of Underage Criminal Cases
Several violent crimes of teenagers surfaced in the Korean society during the past few months such as the sexual assault case in Daegu and the mob violence that took place in Seoul, Gwanak, and Busan. The reasons behind why it has become such an issue are not only because of the atrocious crimes that these teens have enacted, but also because of the relatively weak punishments that were given to them.
It seems that the crimes are becoming more and more intense over time. Youngsters are coming together and beating their peers until he or she is covered in blood. The attackers make fun of the situation by taking pictures and videos, not knowing what they are doing is wrong. This makes people think: ‘Why do they conduct such crimes and why is it increasing?’. To begin with, Professor Won Hye-uk of Inha University’s Law School claims that juvenile crime is an incorrect form of teenagers expressing themselves. Adding on, she mentions, “The reason behind the increase of juvenile delinquency is highly related to the environment that these children are in. If you take a look at the age group of these crimes, the attackers are usually around the age of 15 to 18. In this age group, students are slowly learning how the society works and are trying to find their own way to express their thoughts and feelings. However, in the society that we live in, there is not a place that gives a chance for these children to release such emotions. They have always lived the same lifestyle and the compulsion of their education comes as a huge stress. The society that disregards the weak is where these children live in, and thus they think it is okay to do anything to those who seem weaker than them. Juvenile delinquency is the output of the two combined.” Lee Seung-hyun, a researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, also points out that the actual rate of juvenile crimes has not increased in comparison to the population of teenagers. However, she did mention that the rate of juvenile sex crimes and second offense rates have increased along with the press giving attention to violent juvenile crimes. “The percentage of violent crimes by juveniles is very low. Most crimes by juveniles are things such as defamation and larceny. However, the media tends to focus only on violent crimes, so the public thinks that all juvenile crimes are like the ones shown in the news. In reality, these crimes only take 10% out of all juvenile crimes. We have to notice that the focus should not be about the number, but about the type of crime.” Last but not least, the number of teenagers with a mental illness is increasing. According to the Ministry of Justice, the rate of juvenile attackers having a mental disorder is continually increasing as the violence of underage crime proportionally increases too.
What is Juvenile Law?
Juvenile law was first given its name by the U.S Chicago Court and was established in South Korea in 1958. The law states “People under the age of 19 will be protected under this law.” Under juvenile law, adolescents who are ten to 14 years old are subject to the protection case while those of 15 to 19 years old can be considered as a subject in both the criminal and protection cases. To be specific, protection cases rectify the environment and behavior of the young attacker and contain community service, probation, and consignment of juvenile protection facilities. In criminal cases, on the other hand, they usually follow the examples of a normal criminal case but because the opponent is underage and the UN Convention on the Rights of Children; all punishments are lessened. For example, death penalty with imprisonment for life would become 15 years in prison. Furthermore, if penal servitude for an indeterminate term is given in the long term it could be up to more than ten years and in the short term, five years cannot be exceeded.
Different countries have different kinds of juvenile laws but the goal they have in common is to protect teenagers. Around the age of 14 to 19, it is clear that a juvenile’s personality is not completely mature and there are many chances for them to reflect upon themselves and become a better person. Thus, should they be under the protection of the country when it comes to facing the law? Professor Won Hyeuk, says that the reason behind the existence of juvenile laws is because “Teenagers and adults have a clear difference. Thus, it is difficult to judge them just like adult criminals. Behind these crimes, stand various reasons that are different from adult crimes. In this sense, the country has the responsibility to protect them as a parent and as an education institute.”
Improvement of the Law on Punishing Juvenile Crimes
There are some who really look back at what they have done and ask for forgiveness, but others just act like they regret their crimes in order to receive an easy punishment. These types usually go on to second offenses, and this is why many argue that juvenile law should be abolished. However, professionals say that abolishing juvenile law might cause more crimes. The reason is that if rescission of this law occurs, regardless of the size and result of the crime, everyone would be criminals and thrown in jail. The time in jail would work negatively since the youngsters would be isolated from the society and only watch, hear, and learn about crimes and will be surrounded by criminals. With one voice, juvenile professionals say that this will only create an infinite cycle of second offenses on a whole different level than what they did before. Professor Won sets a perfect example by explaining the case of Shin Chang-won, who is a famous criminal who started with a burglary crime at a young age. Because the justice system punished him with a jail sentence, he came to commit even more crimes and is still in jail. One of his famous quotes is “I might have lived a different life if I did not go to jail for the first time and had a second chance.”
There are other improvement plans and punishments, other than simply banishing juvenile law. First, the Ministry of Justice stated that “The age group that is considered in the juvenile law at the moment was made in 1953 so considering the mental and physical maturity of the children nowadays, lowering the age of those who are considered as a criminal minor is one way to improve this situation.” They also add that when doing so, there are many factors that should be taken into serious consideration, such as research into the actual mental and physical maturity of juveniles, the effect of education, environment and culture, as well as examples from other countries. Secondly, due to the aforementioned reason, instead of abolishing juvenile law, initial suppression should be the main focus. Professor Won Hyeuk claims that the examiner system should be reinforced in every area and a separate justice system just for juvenile crimes should be created. “For example, Germany has a whole system committed only to juveniles, lowering the rate of underage crimes.” She also adds, “In Germany, they made a basketball court for youngsters to express their stress in a positive way and this had a huge impact on the decrease of crime rates, which is also a way that the Korean government can consider.” All professionals agree that subjugation in the early stage is very important and each crime should be punished just for that crime, no more or no less.
No matter who you are or what age group you are in, what has been done cannot be erased. In other words, despite the fact that juvenile delinquency exists, the attacker is a teenager or younger, they have indeed committed a crime, and they should be punished. However, we have to take note that some juvenile delinquencies have origins in other areas, such as education, the household, and the environment. Having said that, the youngsters of today are living in a world that makes them feel okay about violating rules. The solution is striking a balance in which all problems can be dealt with conclusively.