Colombian children below the age of 14 have been committing significantly more crimes due to changes made in 2006 to the criminal justice system, according to a new study funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).
“The implementation of the SRPA [Criminal Responsibility System for Adolescents in 2006] increased crime overall and recomposed crime participation among age groups, prompting children below [age] 14 to engage more in criminal activities,” claimed the study.
The enactment of the law changed the minimum age of imprisonment from 12 to 14, and reduced the severity of punishment for all offenders under the age of 18. Also, criminal offenders aged between 14 and 16 “can only be sent to jail when involved in crimes such as homicide, kidnaps and extortion.” These changes were supposed to be compensated by a strong system of rehabilitation and support with the intended purpose of creating a more restorative form of justice, rather than a punitive one. However, one of the authors of the study and an associate professor of Colombia’s University of the Andes, Ana Maria Ibañez, believes its results demonstrate that the transition has not been successful.
“I think it’s an issue of implementation, basically it [the law] has not been implemented fully…and I think what’s going on is that children are participating more in criminal activity,” Ibañez told Colombia Reports.
One fundamental problem is that there are less risks associated with committing crime for children under the age of 14, but also less of an incentive for police to apprehend them. In theory, the police are supposed to contact the Colombian Institute for Family Well Being (ICBF) when they apprehend a child under the age of 14, but in practice this has not been happening, according to the research.
“The police force knows that such arrests, given the application of Law 1098, will probably end with no punitive measure and hence they simply have reduced their effort to apprehend them,” the report stated.
Criminal gangs have not remained unaware of the changes, either.
“Criminal groups are very street savvy and they know that the regulations are like that, so they are recruiting children below 14 years of age to commit many of their criminal activities,” stated Ibañez.
Another consequence that has been reflected in the study is that school attendance has dropped for children below 14 years old.
“What we found is that after this law was put in place and the restorative justice system should have been implemented, children below 14 years of age are dropping out of school, with a higher [frequency],” said the professor.
While Ibañez was quick to stress that more data would be needed to make the correlation with absolute certainty, the professor said that the data they had leaned heavily in that direction.
Ibañez believes that the solution is to fortify the current system, to make it effective, and to do it quickly. Otherwise, it will be Colombia’s children who will bear the cost.
“If you want a more restorative justice system you have to invest money and you have to do it correctly. They created the restorative justice system to protect children and what’s going on is that the children are not being protected because the system is not working, criminals know that the system is not working and they are taking advantage of that. If the state doesn’t act quickly, criminals are going to [continue to] take advantage of that and they are going to have those children participate in criminal activity. So…you have to strengthen the system, and you have to put it in place, not just on paper,” said the professor.
“The literature shows clearly that if you start early committing [crimes] it’s very difficult for some of them to get out. So if the system is not working you’re condeming a lot of children to be emerged in the criminal world for [a] very long [time],” Ibañez concluded.