Rights groups have criticised a proposal from President Javier Milei’s government to lower the age of criminal responsibility in Argentina from 16 to 14, saying it would be a clear step backwards.
Warning the move “would not solve the problem of insecurity,” global rights group Amnesty International poured cold water on the idea it would lower crime. On the contrary, it would “worsen security” and expose minors to organised crime, they added.
Another expert in protecting juvenile rights warned that changing the law could “end up reinforcing criminal practices instead of deterring them.”
Several bills seeking to raise the age of criminal responsibility have been introduced to Argentina’s Congress in recent years, but none have won approval. However, recent remarks by Milei’s new justice minister, Mariano Cúeno Libarona, have resurfaced the issue.
Cúeno Libarona, a veteran lawyer, said in an interview last month that a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility is one of his legislative goals for 2024.
“The age of 14, for example, which is the age I like … is supported by almost 30 bills I have on my desk that have been presented and have not been accepted by the Legislature,” the minister told Radio Rivadavia.
Any legislative change “should not only include punishment, but should also include a subsequent stage, which is education,” he added.
According to a 1983 law that raised the age of responsibility from 14 years old in Argentina, people under the age of 16 are tried under a different penal regime.
Only minors convicted of a crime punishable with over two years of jail time are sentenced, and only adults over the age of 18 can go to prison. Minors must be held in a juvenile institution until they are adults.
In other nations in the Americas, such as the United States and Brazil, people under the age of 18 face different criminal proceedings to adults, with different legal consequences.
President Javier Milei’s administration has a bucket list of national security and judicial reforms, including the bid to lower the age of criminal responsibility for minors.
During his presidential campaign in November 2023, the libertarian economist presented his La Libertad Avanza party platform to the National Electoral Chamber as a prerequisite for his candidacy. The document outlines his primary proposals, beliefs and aspirations.
In a section titled ‘National security and judicial reform,” Milei details a proposal to “study the feasibility of lowering the age of responsibility for minors.”
During his campaign, Milei also spoke with Spanish newspaper El País and confirmed that he favours lowering the age of responsibility.
Many politicians in Argentina have spoken out in support. Hardline Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who ran against Milei in the 2023 presidential race, has called for the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to 14. Her party ally, PRO politician Cristian Ritondo, proposed a bill to that extent in 2018.
During the 2015-2019 government led by president Mauricio Macri, who today is an ally of Milei, then-justice minister Germán Garavano also attempted to lower the threshold.
Marisa Graham, a lawyer and Argentina’s Defensora Nacional de los Derechos de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes (National Ombudswoman for the Rights of Girls, Boys and Adolescents), said in an interview that this type of legislation “worries” her.
Lowering the age also feels like an uncertain “threat” and a “regressive measure,” she added. Graham asserts that legislation penalising children actually threatens an increase in crime.
“The [UN] Committee on the Rights of the Child has already warned us since 2018 that we cannot lower the age or increase penalties,” she said, stating that these measures infringe on the rights of minors.
Noelia Garone, the Director of Human Rights Protection and Promotion at Amnesty International Argentina, expressed similar views in a statement provided to the Times.
Garone said that this type of legislation would be a regression of achievements for children in Argentina, and it would be “contrary to international human rights principles.”
“It generates an illusion of a quick response of the criminal law…when it has been demonstrated in the whole world, including neighbouring countries, that this is not the case,” agreed Graham, who was appointed to her state position in 2019 by a bicameral congressional committee.
Research carried out in Latin America shows that young people are more disposed to act rashly, but that few children who commit crimes continue doing so in adulthood. This is likely because they committed crimes prior to the complete development of their brains, during periods of emotional instability.
The impact of a criminal sentence of jail time for minors can be devastating. Garone, of Amnesty International, explained that studies on countries that have implemented these kinds of measures “end up reinforcing criminal practices instead of deterring them.”
According to the global rights NGO, lowering the age of responsibility in fact worsens security because it excludes young people from society and exposes them to more criminal behaviour.
“The adolescent who must serve a custodial sentence is closed to school, to work on the part of society, and the door to organised crime is opened,” said Garone.
A study carried out in 2020 used neuroscience to shed light on the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the context of Latin America.
According to the research, published by scholars of the Buenos Aires National Academy of Sciences and the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Penales in Mexico, the adolescent brain is more unstable, showing signs of low tolerance to frustration and a decrease in the ability to emotionally self-regulate.
Because of this, risky behaviour presents itself more often in adolescence, the study says. However, it found “only a small percentage of young offenders escalate their behaviour to committing crimes during adulthood.”
In other words, neuroscience reveals that young people are predisposed to taking risky measures or defying social norms because it is more difficult for them to regulate emotions. But very few minors who break the law in their youth go on to commit more crimes as adults, once their brains are developed.
The study does not recommend a specific age for criminal responsibility, but argues that legal systems should strive to protect adolescents and favour their development. In contrast to the proposal from Milei’s government, they recommend increasing the threshold.
In addition, “a wide variety of socio-educational measures” in response to criminal offences by minors should instead be adopted over jail time, it concludes. Such punishments might include fines, community service, the obligation to finish schooling, and providing apologies to victims, among other things.
On this point, Argentina’s government is in agreement. In a recent interview with Perfil, Cúeno Libarona argued at length that while minors should face punishment for crimes they commit, they should also be provided with the necessary tools for rehabilitation.
“Fifteen- and 14-year-olds are aware of the criminality of the act and of the actions they carry out,” Libarona argued. “I think we have to live the reality that today, a 14-year-old boy is not the same 14-year-old boy of 50 years ago.”
The justice minister’s increased favour toward lowering the age of criminal responsibility runs contrary to the advice of experts. Both they, and the research, suggest that instead of reducing or deterring crime, the change would actually be a clear step backwards.