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Korea grasps nettle of young offenders

The age from which juvenile offenders can be tried under the Criminal Act has been an issue of contention in Korea for some time, with high-profile violent crimes committed by juveniles regularly making headlines.

With a new administration, the issue has reemerged as a major topic of debate, with some calling for a lowering the age bar for certain punishments, while others say harsher sentences will bring more problems than solutions.

Rekindled debate

On June 8, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon ordered the ministry to review ways to lower the age at which suspects can be tried under the Criminal Act to 12 from the current 14, in line with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign pledge.

In addition, there are currently seven bills that propose similar changes.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission is expected to announce its opposition, maintaining its position that the focus of managing juvenile crimes should be education and reform, not punishment.

Currently, juvenile offenders are divided into three groups regarding the legal consequences they face.

Teenagers aged 14 to 19 can be charged according to the Criminal Act and Juvenile Act. Juvenile offenders aged 10 to 13 -- commonly referred to as criminal minors -- are tried under the Juvenile Act. Those younger than 10 do not face legal consequences.

Regardless of the crime, the most severe punishment for criminal minors is 2-years’ incarceration in a juvenile detention center, with no criminal record.

A juvenile offender tried under the Criminal Act faces far more severe punishment than those tried under the Juvenile Act, and also gains an official criminal record.

However, it does not mean there are no limitations on punishment. The death penalty or life imprisonment for criminals under 18 must be commuted to 15-year imprisonment. No matter how serious the crime is, even in a case that involves murder or rape, the maximum punishment is 20 years’ imprisonment for teenagers.

Victims, lack of legal structure overshadowed by calls for punishment

Senior Judge Chun Jong-ho of the Daegu District Court, who formerly served as Juvenile Court judge for eight consecutive years, is known as the “father of juvenile offenders.”

This nickname might give the impression that he is a generous or merciful judge, but he was actually known as one of the country’s strictest. He no longer works in Juvenile Court, but he still actively participates in activities to help young perpetrators to live a new life.

“I understand some of the public demanding heavier punishment, but it is a problem that legislators and experts agree on,” Chun said, adding that the revision of the Juvenile Act should not focus on lowering the age.

He argued that removing restrictions on the juvenile detention center period would be more effective. Before the act was revised in 2008, juvenile offenders could be incarcerated at centers until adulthood.

Moreover, he stressed the possibility of prison functioning as a place to become further involved in crime.

Chun also highlighted the problem of Korea lacking juvenile prisons that are different from juvenile detention centers. There are no prisons for girls in Korea and only one such facility for boys, Chun said. Chun said that prisons should be subdivided by age, and the infrastructure to manage juvenile offenders should be expanded.

“Let‘s say that children aged 12 and 13 will be punished under the Criminal Act after lowering the age standard. Those girls must live with adult criminals. In the case of boys, there is only one juvenile prison, and it accommodates criminals aged up to 23 years old. What would a 13-year-old child learn if he were to live with a 23-year-old local gangster?” he said.

“If we lower age standards without these measures, our feeling may be satisfied, but eventually, we will fail to prevent reoffending,” said Chun.

About the argument that strengthening the punishment will benefit the victims, he said that revising the Crime Victim Protection Act would be a practical help instead.

“I’m not against severe punishment, but it’s more urgent to work together to help victims recover and prevent further crimes.”

Referring to the high-profile case of a middle school girl being brutally beaten by four of her peers in 2017, in which he was the presiding judge, Chun said that young victims were overlooked despite great public attention to the case.

“The case caused great public outrage, but no one discussed how to help the victim,” Chun said that it showed blind spots that we have been overlooking while being obsessed with harsher punishment.

Proper punishment

Proponents of lowering the age say that times have changed, and that harsher punishment may be the only option in the absence of alternatives.

Oh Yoon-sung, a professor of criminology and police administration at Soonchunhyang University, has already been demanding changes to the age thresholds for a decade. Oh claims that the current standard for age classification is outdated.

“Children are far more mature than in the past, and they are exposed to more information and experiences than before. We need to change standards to match the pace of children‘s development,” he said.

He also said that lowering the standard would not have much effect as it does not mean that all children of that age range will be tried according to the Criminal Act.

“Only children who have committed really serious crimes will be subject to the Criminal Act, and the majority will be subjected to the Juvenile Act as usual. So, in reality, about just 1 percent of criminal minors will likely be punished by the Criminal Act. Even now, the problem is only a very small minority of children who commit crimes as cruel as adult felons.”

Oh, however, said he would not object if there were more effective ways than lowering the age standard. He positively viewed Judge Chun’s suggestion to expand the juvenile detention period, saying, “Either way, I think we should go in the direction of ensuring an appropriate amount of punishment.”

However, he drew a line between providing infrastructure for juvenile offenders and lowering the age standard, saying those two were completely separate issues. The current situation in which we cannot impose appropriate punishments on juvenile offenders cannot persist any longer, said Oh.

“It has been a long time since the discussion on the criminal minors’ age standard was raised, but this is the first time the Justice Ministry has gotten involved, so there may be a change this time.”

By Lee Jung-Youn (