"We need to show them how scary the law is! We need to teach them that there are consequences when they harm people."
- Referee, Shim Eun-seok of the Juvenile Justice
"Everyone criticizes juvenile offenders. It's just us judges who can give them a second chance."
- Referee, Judge Hwang In-jun of the Juvenile Justice
Recently, a new popular show on Netflix, “Juvenile Justice” is attracting attention from many people. As the above conflicting statements on different ways to approach juvenile raises concerns among viewers about these issues, a question has emerged: "Is the Juvenile Act really for the youth?"
Punishment is one of the scariest expressions in the law. This is because punishment is to impose direct penalties on those who have caused social damage due to poor behavior. However, people have seen in the news many times that minors, especially children and adolescents classified as criminal minors, are only being warned without imposing additional penalties. The reason for this is the “Juvenile Act”. The Juvenile Act is a law to punish adolescents under the age of 19 under civil law who commit crimes.
The reason why punishment against juvenile offenders is not strongly imposed can be seen in Article 1 of the Juvenile Act.
Article 1: The purpose of this Act is to help children grow up soundly by taking necessary measures such as environmental adjustment and protective measures for correcting the conduct of anti-social juveniles and special measures for criminal punishment.
According to Article 1, it can be seen that the Juvenile Act focuses on edification and prevention rather than retribution, edification, and prevention, which are three essential purposes of the criminal law. Juvenile offenders are easier to edify than adult offenders because they are immature in mental development, therefore the Juvenile Act aims to edify them rather than punish them.
However, as the age at which adolescents commit crimes is getting lower and the crimes are getting worse, society is moving toward an abolition of the Juvenile Act and stronger punishment. We can tell just by the cases of "Yongin Apartment Brick Throwing Death Case" and "Incheon Elementary School Kidnapping Case." These two cases are actual juvenile crimes that appeared in the Juvenile Justice.
"The Brick Throwing Incident in Yongin Apartment" was a case in which two elementary school students dropped bricks from the roof of an apartment in Yongin in 2015. Due to this incident, a woman in her 50s was killed and a man in his 20 had skull depression. However, students who threw the bricks were completely excluded from criminal responsibility under the age of 10 and were not subject to criminal punishment or protection.
"The Incheon Elementary School Kidnapping Case" is also a terrible case in which Ms. Kim committed a murder by committing mutilation of a second-grade student. However, Ms. Kim was only sentenced to 20 years in prison. Ms. Kim was 16 years old in Korean age when she commited the crime, so she was the subject to the Juvenile Act. Therefore, no matter what the crime Ms.Kim committed, 20 years in prison was the maximum legal sentence due to the application of the Juvenile Act.
When these two cases and the results of the trial became known to the public, many people were angered and called for severe punishment to be imposed. However, nothing has changed, and this was the unfortunate reality of the Juvenile Act. Especially, for the case of “The Incheon Elementary School Kidnapping Case, in which victims and perpetrators are minors, controversy has been heating up over whether the Juvenile Act is really a true law for minors.
Despite juvenile crime crimes reaching a level that exceeds adult crimes, there have been many cases of light punishment. Therefore, protests of petitions calling for the abolition and revision of the juvenile act are increasing. As a result of a survey about public opinion on the Juvenile Act conducted by Realmeter, the polling agency, only 12.9% wanted to maintain the current status quo, 21% wanted to abolish it, and the remaining 62.2% insist on revising the Juvenile Act.
There are various reasons why the public insists on the abolition of the Juvenile Act. First of all, most of the victims of juvenile crimes are in the same age group. Juvenile crimes usually occur at schools and academies, and numerous teenagers are targeted by peer victims, such as in the case of "The Incheon Elementary School Students Kidnapping Case" and "The Mass Sexual Assault of Middle School Girls in Incheon and Busan." The Juvenile Act protects immature adolescents with the intention of re-education and sending them to society, but youth victims who should be equally protected are suffering more from the Juvenile Act.
In addition, juvenile offenders abuse the Juvenile Act by recognizing that the level of punishment is low. Many adolescents are well aware that they are not going to be punished or only go to juvenile detention for a month because they are criminal minors. Therefore, there are many cases where they intentionally commit crimes and show no sign of self-reflection. For this reason, the age group corresponding to minors shows a high recidivism rate. According to the Probation Statistics on the recidivism rate for those subject to probation, it is confirmed that the crime recidivism rate of adolescents is 13.5%, which is twice the crime recidivism rate of adults (5.0%). This proves that the purpose of re-education for legal minors in the Juvenile Act is practically ineffective.
Despite the growing number of voices calling for the abolition of the Juvenile Act, there is clearly a reason why the Juvenile Act has been maintained so far. The reason is that the best opportunity for juvenile offenders to escape from delinquency should not disappear. The purpose of the penalty is not punishment, but the function of "correction." Stigmatizing adolescents with poor judgment as criminals and ex-convicts from an early age can hinder their normal growth in the future. Kim Jae-Yoon, a professor at the Graduate School of Law of Chonnam National University, pointed out, "It is an irresponsible idea to suppress crimes by using children as a tool of punishment, and would it be actually possible for children to be educated when they are sentenced to life imprisonment?"
In addition, considering the rapid increase in the quality and speed of information sharing through smartphones and SNS, it is pointed out that the Juvenile Act enacted in 1958 does not properly reflect the social situation that has changed for more than 60 years. Citing the spread of a video of a middle school student being bullied in front of the building in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Supreme Council member Kim stated, "Only the re-socialization of an adolescent who committed a crime should not be the purpose of the juvenile law." As such, it is time to actively examine the improvement of the system so that the actual punishment or edification of juvenile crimes can be strengthened.
Currently, the juvenile law does not sufficiently reflect the modern social situation, so there is a need for revision. Therefore, Korean political circles are attempting to respond by proposing amendments to the Juvenile Act whenever the controversy over the abolition and revision of the Juvenile Act heats up. In the 20th National Assembly, amendments to lower the age of the criminal minor were submitted seven times, but they were all abolished failing to cross the threshold of the National Assembly. However, Yoon Seok-yeol, who was elected as the 20th president of South Korea, made an election promise to lower the age of the criminal minor from 14 to 12. Accordingly, the Ministry of Justice recently reported that they will support the legislative discussion of the National Assembly on lowering the age standard for criminal minors. The legal community predicts that if adolescents commit crimes in the future, the possibility of strong punishment is likely.
There is certainly a problem that soft punishment continues to take place despite the increasing severity of juvenile crimes. However, it is time to strengthen both the actual punishment and edification of juvenile criminals, in keeping with changes in society. In addition, the system should be improved so that the rights of the victims can be properly guaranteed to ensure a true "Juvenile Act" for adolescents.