Belgium's battle against youth crime

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Belgium is trying to clamp down on juvenile offenders. But are the law reforms propsed the right way to go about it? Renée Cordes reports.

A draft law designed to make it easier to punish juvenile offenders — and adults that aid and abet them — has sparked a wide-ranging debate among Belgium's politicians, jurists, children's advocates and psychologists over the right way to deal with young criminals.

While proponents of the move say reform is long overdue, others are worried that it will strip all young people of important civil rights. Still other critics argue that stigmatising young criminals will do more harm than good. Though the law in one form or another is set to take effect later this year, the fate of Belgium's long-standing youth-protection law still hangs in the balance.

Youth prisons

Last week, senior members of the Belgian cabinet approved a plan drawn up by Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen making it possible for persons aged 16 and over accused of committing serious crimes to be tried as adults, and to be sent to federal youth prisons during and after trial if found guilty. It also calls for more severe prosecution and punishment of adults who force minors to commit crimes, even if the adults do not commit any crimes themselves. The plan got the green light despite opposition from the Green and Socialist parties.

"The point of this law is to give magistrates more equipment to prosecute and eventually punish those who commit crimes," said Joannes Thuy, a spokesman for Verwilghen, a member of the ruling Flemish Liberal (VLD) party. Thuy said the government believes the new measures will act as a deterrent to both juveniles and adults who recruit young people to partake in criminal acts. "It's a very clear sign that the Belgian government means business."

Power for judges

But the reform also aims to give judges more tools to deal with offenders found guilty of less serious offences. It would, for example, allow judges to impose alternative punishments to those aged 12 and older, tailored to fit the accused person's personal circumstances. These might include reparation to victims, community service or payment of a fine.

The plan is aimed at modernising Belgium's youth-protection law, which dates back to 1965. Though the philosophy behind the plan is essentially the same as the law currently in place, there is one important difference. Under the new system, judges will be allowed to hand down a punishment based on the gravity of the crime committed.

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