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Argentina: Juvenile Criminal Justice Reform

(Apr. 29, 2009) The Committee on Criminal Legislation of the Argentine Congress is currently debating a bill on juvenile criminal justice that would govern the criminal prosecution of children and adolescents between 14 and 18 years of age who commit crimes. At present, children between 14 and 16 years old are subject to a protective regime that considers them not subject to criminal responsibility but at the same time deprives them of any procedural rights; as a result, they are regularly, arbitrarily deprived of their freedom. The debate has become very timely because of the recent murder of a bus driver by a 14-year-old child. A major contributor to the drafting of the bill was Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Zaffaroni.

If approved, the bill will supersede Law 22278 of August 25, 1980 (See BOLETIN OFICIAL [the official gazette] (Aug. 28, 1980), available at passed during the period of military dictatorship, which allowed the courts to imprison juvenile criminal suspects without any procedural guarantees. The criminal sanction has in particular regularly affected children and adolescents who are poor or living under circumstances of social vulnerability.

For the past nearly 12 years, many bills have been submitted to the legislature to change the juvenile justice system, but none met with successful passage. Now, even many former opponents of changing the law recognize that the same criminal penalty applied to an adult who is fully aware and responsible for his or her actions should not be applied to an adolescent whose personality is in a developmental stage. Under the new system, a minor would not be allowed to violate the law with impunity, but at the same time, the applicable sanction would target effecting a positive change in the minor's behavior in the short term, limiting to a minimum the time spent in prison. (Primeros Pasos en Diputados en Torno del Proyecto de Ley de Responsabilidad Penal Juvenil, PÁGINA 12, Apr. 22, 2009, available at; La ley penal juvenil llega al Congreso argentine, MERCOSUR NOTICIAS, Apr. 17, 2009, available at