Age of criminal responsibility: The age of criminal responsibility corresponds to the age when you can be tried as an adult, i.e. 18. However, the age of criminal responsibility may be increased beyond l8, when seen as appropriate, or upon request of the crown prosecutor. It can also be lowered in certain cases to 16.
Trials: There are special youth courts in Belgium which were established within the Federal Justice System by the Child Protection Law of 1965, which was amended in 1994. Since the law was amended, these courts mainly deal with juvenile delinquency cases (as well as child protection cases).
The Prosecutor, who fulfils many roles, is the only one who can:
– Close the case without prosecution
– Refer the case to a Child/Youth Support Committee
– Transfer the case to a youth court (where there is only one judge).
The Children’s Judge can request a social or medical-psychological study so he can determine the environment the minor lives in as well as his/her personality. During this study (which since the 1994 amendment cannot exceed 6 months), the judge can take temporary measures. A solicitor must be present.
Measures that can be applied to young offenders
Measures taken by youth courts must be re-evaluated each year. Punishments are decided more based on the minor’s personal circumstances than with regards to the offence they committed.
a) Measures outlined by the youth protection law
The following are measures which the courts can implement relative to putting minors into care, protecting them and educating them:
– Reprimanding the minor (with an injunction), addressing the parents or guardians, or monitoring the minor (which will be noted in the court records)
– Monitoring by the Youth Protection Committee or by a youth protection association whilst the minor lives with his family, on the condition that the minor regularly attends school, that they complete “an educational or philanthropic course linked to their age and resources” and that they submit themselves to “educational and medial directives in a educational centre or a mental health clinic”.
– Placement with a foster family or in an appropriate establishment, monitored by the Youth Protection Committee or by a youth protection association
– Placement in a specialist medical-psychiatric centre
If a minor is aged over 16 and the youth court “sees care homes, protection measures or education as inadequate”, or if the minor’s behaviour is seen as dangerous, the minor can be “made a guest of the government” and detained in a prison where they must follow a special regime.
c) The “alternatives” punishments are becoming more and more used. They include for example mediation (carried out by Mediation Commissions in each community), or community service.
Each community in Belgium (Flanders, the Walloon Region and the Brussels Region) has developed its own child support system and comprehensive prevention strategy, with close connections to the Federal Legal Authority.
Points of reference: The Child Protection Law of 1965, which was amended in 1992 and 1994. This law is again currently being reformed.
The main features of the reform:
– The establishment of punishments which involve the offender repairing the damage he caused
– Limiting the imprisonment of minors in the most serious cases
– Sending minors to institutions/prison must always have the final aim of reintegrating them back into society
– The establishment of a wide range of punishments which can be adapted to each individual case
– Creating more judges who are specialised in youth cases
– In order to avoid it looking like the minors are not being punished, and to make the measures as effective as possible, the measures must be taken as quickly as possible after the trial whilst respecting the minor’s rights.
– A scrupulous respect for children’s rights (UN, the Council of Europe and the European Union’s conventions and resolutions) as much during the trial as outside of it.