— Jennifer Peirce, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Colombian juvenile justice is regulated primarily by the Code on Minors (1989) and the Code on Childhood and Adolescence (1991). This marked a shift from the traditional “tutelary” system, common throughout Latin America, under which a judge takes on a parent-like discretionary role in dealing with juvenile offenders. In practice, this meant that in many cases, there was little distinction between juveniles and adults.
At the time of sentencing, there were three basic choices: community service, probation, or imprisonment. When the sentence was prison, youth and adults were housed in the same facilities. Throughout the 1980s, youth advocates pressed government officials to end the practice of imprisoning youth alongside adults. They also objected to the system of indeterminate youth sentences that gave prison staff the discretion to extend youth sentences for as long as they deemed necessary (Zalkind and Simon 2004).
These Codes integrated juvenile justice issues into the general criminal justice reform process in Colombia (a shift from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system) and aimed to align Colombian juvenile justice legislation with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC). The CRC requires that incarceration be used only as a last resort for minors under 18. The new juvenile justice framework in Colombia is clearly differentiated from the adult system: juveniles between 14-18 years of age can be held to some degree of criminal responsibility, while those under 14 years old cannot have criminal responsibility (ICBF 2007).
The juvenile justice system emphasizes rehabilitation and restoration over punishment, and promotes a pedagogical approach. However, in the 1990s, critics noted that juvenile often disregarded the Code for Minors and continued to incarcerate youth alongside adult offenders in high numbers (Zalkind and Simon 2004). Although the Code specified that police were empowered to detain youth only in exceptional circumstances, welfare services were under-funded and young offenders often remained in police custody for extended periods, where abuse sometimes occurred (Human Rights Watch 1994).
In 2006, Law 1098 updated the Code for Adolescence and Childhood, adding explicit reference to the UN CRC and eliminating the possibility for juveniles to be prosecuted under the Criminal Code, excluding serious crimes. The System for Youth Criminal Responsibility (SRPA), under Law 1098, outlines twelve guiding principles for juvenile justice in Colombia, emphasizing the protection of youth and a flexible, specialized justice system oriented toward rehabilitation. The SRPA coordinates with the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF) when minors require protective measures.
The Colombian juvenile justice system allows the following sentencing options for youth found criminally responsible: reprimand, community service, probation, or incarceration in a semi-closed or fully-closed facility. Juvenile detention facilities house only minors and are managed by the ICBF. In 2011, the Law on Citizen Security established that if a juvenile turns 18 years old before completing a sentence, he or she is permitted to finish the remainder of the sentence in the juvenile system, until age 25. Some political leaders argue that these changes to the juvenile justice system are too lenient and call for youth over 15 years old accused of serious crimes to be charged as adults (Semana 2013).
The number of minors processed by the juvenile justice system in Colombia steadily risen since then, with over 130,000 processed from 2007-2013; three-quarters of those cases were minor crimes, with only six percent for serious crimes (Semana, 2013). According to the ICBF, in 2014, 8,060 minors under 18 were under the supervision of the SRPA, and 3,415 of that group were incarcerated. The most common crime for which juveniles are convicted is trafficking, manufacturing, and possession of a weapon (31%), followed by robbery (29%). There were 300 youth arrested for homicide, the crime that receives the most media attention (RCN News 2014).
Human Rights Watch (HRW). (1994). Colombia: Code for Minors.
Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF) (2007). ¿Qué es el Código de Infancia y Adolescencia? [What is the Code for Childhood and Adolescence?] Bogota: ICBF.
Instituto Latinoamericano Instituto Latinoamericano de Naciones Unidas para la Prevención del Delito y el Tratamiento del Delincuente (ILANUD). (1999). Grado de Adecuación de la Legislación Penal de Menores de 18 anos vigente en Colombia a la Convención sobre los Derechos del Niño. [Level of Alignment of Colombian Juvenile Justice Legislation with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.]
Jiménez Marín, D. (2009) Responsabilidad penal juvenil en Colombia: de la ideología tutelar a la protección integral. [Criminal responsibility of minors in Colombia: from the tutelary ideology to comprehensive protection.] Diálogos de Derecho y Política 1(1).
RCN News (2014, 9 May). Más de 3.000 menores están privados de la libertad: ICBF. [More than 3,000 minors in detention: ICBF]. RCN Noticias.
Semana (2013, 10 August). ¿Qué hacer con los jóvenes delincuentes? [What to do with young offenders?] Semana.
Sistema de Responsabilidad Penal para Adolescentes (SRPA) (2013). SRPA: Guía para su comprensión. Bogota: Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF).
Zalkind, Paola and Rita J. Simon (2004). Global perspectives on social issues: Juvenile justice systems. Lexington Books.