Age of criminal responsibility: The law covering the rights of minors (Jugendgerichtsgesetz 1988) makes a distinction between “children”, i.e. people who are under 14, and “adolescents”, i.e. minors between 14 and 19.
– Minors under 14 have complete criminal irresponsibility (section 4, Para.. 1). They are considered “incapable of crime”, and therefore cannot be prosecuted. The youth social assistance service will act if need be.
Adolescents who commit crimes will also be considered immune from prosecution:
– If for particular reasons, they cannot be deemed responsible for the actions they carried out
– In certain circumstances when they commit a minor offence when they are under 16
– generally, if the offence is very small (in which case adults would also not likely to be prosecuted).
Trials: The solicitors and prosecutors involved in juvenile cases must have special teaching qualifications and should also have some qualifications in psychology and social work.
There are specific youth courts in the cities of Vienna and Graz. Justice for minors therefore takes places through specialist services at all levels of the court. At these different levels, child protection cases (custody of children, family conflicts) and cases of juvenile delinquency are dealt with by the same service. The “jury panel” (eight people not involved in law) must include at least four people who are or were teachers or who are/were involved in public or private sector youth assistance associations. Whereas the “common jury”, which includes two retired judges, must only include one of these such people.
All suspects must be told as soon as criminal proceedings begin against them. The minor must be told what he/she is accused of and what his/her rights are during the proceedings. Furthermore, the youth social assistance office and the family affairs court are notified before the minor is prosecuted.
The minor must have a solicitor present throughout the trial to protect his/her rights, especially from when he/she is put in detention awaiting the trail. This solicitor will be provided free of charge for the minor. An interpreter, paid for by the court, can also be provided.
The parents or the legal representative of the minor have the right to be heard during the trial, to give evidence, to ask questions, and to check whether the suspect’s rights are being respected. If the minor has been arrested, he also has the right to have someone with him whilst he is being interrogated by the police and during the trial. He/she must be informed of this right when they are arrested. The people that accompany them are usually the parents, their legal representative, their legal guardian, another relative, a teacher, a youth social worker, a youth court official or a school official.
The Strafprozessänderungsgesetz of 1993 (Law which modified criminal proceedings from 1st January 1994), strengthened the rule that the maximum length of temporary detention must be proportional to the offences. Temporary detention must be limited to three months for a youth (or one year for major offences).
In order to minimise the negative impact of the minor’s delinquency, his/her private life must be protected:
– by not permitting the media to reveal the names of young offenders
– by restricting the number of people able to watch the trial.
Measures that can be applied to young offenders: Trials against minors may be abandoned, for example when the suspect accepts doing repair work instead (voluntarily, or mediation between the offender and the victim).
The judge can sentence the offender to:
– repair work (offender-victim settlement/mediation)
– a period during which they will be monitored
– paying a sum of money to a charity
– carrying out volunteer work (community service)
– paying compensation for the damage they have caused
– taking part in training classes.
Punishments (fines, prison sentences etc.) are halved for minors. The threat of a life sentence is replaced by the threat of sentences from 1 to 10 years (if the minor was over 16 when the offence was committed).
Furthermore, life imprisonment cannot be sentenced to anyone who was under 20 at the time the crime was committed.
For practical reasons, prison sentences are rarely used for minors, usually only for very serious crimes or repeated offences. Around 200 minors (under 19) are currently in detention in Austria (which has a population of 8 million).
Prioritising alternatives punishments: The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a minor must only take place as a last resort and only for very short periods. There are many other alternatives that are preferable to prison sentences.
Minors awarded prison sentences are detained in special prisons or in special sections of normal prisons. Minors must be separated from adults in prisons. In order to promote their reintegration, they are allowed to continue with their school work or receive professional training.
Points of reference: Punishments for criminal offences committed by minors and the specific workings of youth courts are outlined in the Juvenile Courts Act (Jugendgerichtsgesetz) 1988