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Laws to stop juvenile marauders?

LAST WEEK police reported that a five-year old girl was involved in the act of robbing a 54-year old man of Sk800 (€19.30) in central Slovakia's Rimavská Sobota. Certainly, no one would imagine that the child held a gun to the head of her victim, or that she physically overpowered him. But she was a party to a crime that was carried out by her two bothers, aged 10 and 15, who beat up and robbed the man of his money.

Psychologists say that a person is more likely to become a criminal if he can first see himself as one, which makes the story all the more disturbing.

Barely a few years ago, Slovaks would have dismissed stories of students assaulting their teachers, and child gangs terrorising town centres, as the stuff of fiction. Now all that has changed. The recent statistics on the rate of increase in juvenile crime make disturbing reading, and will dispel the illusion that Slovakia is immune to this serious social problem.

In all probability incidents of social disorder by youngsters existed during communist times, but the socialist propaganda machine disseminated images of spotless happy youths who were portrayed as the standard bearers of an idealistic future.

If Slovaks lived under a lie then, they are now faced with the harsh brutal truth of today: Children annually commit more than 10,000 crimes in Slovakia, which is approximately 10 percent of all crimes recorded here. Half of these crimes are perpetrated by children under the age of 15 and the manner of their execution is becoming increasingly brutal.

Slovak police in several towns have already reported child gangs terrorising entire neighbourhoods.

The Justice Ministry's response appears to be resolute: Criminal responsibility should be lowered to the age of 14. This proposal is an official declaration that Slovakia has joined more than the European Union. It shows that the republic now has a problem that is endemic throughout Europe.

In August 2004, six boys aged between 11 and 15 robbed and brutally killed an 80-year-old woman in the Czech village of Olešnice.

They stabbed her nine times with a pair of scissors, then made off with her two hundred crowns. In fact, their father drove them to the scene of the crime. And it was not an isolated case.

Czech police recorded several brutal murders committed by children opening a fiery debate in the Czech political arena.

Those who oppose lowering the age of criminal responsibility, both in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, say that prevention should be the first priority.

They have a point, of course, but ultimately the arguments always lead back to adults.

First of all the state needs to ensure that the number of crimes committed against children, by adults, is reduced too.

In the United States, for every violent or sexual crime committed by a juvenile, there are three such crimes committed by adults against juveniles. Slovakia may not necessarily be different in that respect.

Frequently people, and indeed parents, tend to expect solutions from the state, instead of assuming personal responsibility.

When the state takes action it often resorts to introducing tougher laws to cure the problem. In the case of juveniles, it may mean decreasing the age for criminal liability or manufacturing some other legislation to track behaviour.

In 2001 there was a huge debate in the United Kingdom over the installation of so-called age-based curfew measures to help reduce juvenile crime and vandalism. Strong opposition to the measure was based on the fear of the escalation of tensions between young people and the state authorities.

Advocates of the system claimed that the measure would help to better protect the communities as well as young people. However, if there is no criminal penalty for breaking the curfew, the motives behind the exercise are flawed.

Though such measures appeal emotionally to those who want to feel secure in schools and neighbourhoods there are serious doubts whether more severe laws will prevent children from committing crimes.

Education might be one of the ways to prevent juvenile crime. This year ethics and religion classes have been introduced at Slovak schools.

The problem is that the Education Ministry has not secured enough teachers for the ethics classes, though in bigger cities like Bratislava children were more inclined to take classes in ethics than attending courses in religion.

Perhaps it all really starts at school, where such initiatives should be encouraged to give citizens in society the protection they deserve.

By Beata Balogová

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