Serbia is poised to cut the minimum age of criminal responsibility after a 13-year-old went on a shooting spree in a Belgrade school, reaching for the kind of ‘tougher punishment’ response it has deployed before. Studies, however, raise doubts about the deterrent effect.
When, in the hours that followed an unprecedented school shooting in Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic called for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be cut from 14 to 12, he was reaching for the most obvious tool of response – tougher punishment.
Nine people, eight of them schoolchildren, died on the morning of May 3 when a 13-year-old boy walked into his Belgrade elementary school and opened fire from a pistol owned by his father.
At a press conference the same day, Vucic urged the government, led by his handpicked prime minister, Ana Brnabic, to consider cutting the age of criminal responsibility to 12, claiming that children today mature earlier and are physically stronger. “It is possible for children and young people to commit the most serious crimes,” he said.
Two days later, a 21-year-old man went on a shooting spree in the Belgrade suburb of Mladenovac, killing eight and wounding 13.
Thousands of Serbs have since taken to the streets to protest what they say is a culture of violence in Serbian society fed by irresponsible politicians and tabloid media.
The response of authorities has been true to form: a number of people have been arrested for social media posts that appear to advocate violence, more police have been promised to protect schools, and schools have been instructed to compile lists of children who behave in an “anti-social” manner, though the interior ministry later apologised for this measure.
It’s the kind of reflex that has characterised the government’s response to security and law-and-order issues before, from sexual abuse to violence on the soccer stands. Experts question the motivation and the impact.
“I’d say that the main goal of these proposals is to satisfy the agitated emotions and anger of the public over everything that has happened,” said Aleksandar Baucal, professor of psychology at the University of Belgrade. Vucic’s ruling Progressive Party is trying to “create the impression that they’ll find quick solutions.”
Instead, authorities should be crafting a far more sophisticated response that addresses the underlying causes, he said. “Out of respect for them [the victims], we need to deal more seriously with the problems and adopt a package of measures that will really contribute to reducing or solving them.”
Governments want to be seen ‘taking action’
Under Vucic, who has been in power since 2012, Serbia has already increased – or promised to increase – punishment for violent crimes.
In May 2019, parliament, at the urging of Vucic, increased the minimum and maximum sentences for all crimes involving violent behaviour and introduced life imprisonment as a punishment.
“I’m not particularly interested in all the objections of human rights activists”, Vucic said at the time.
The move came after some 158,000 people signed a petition seeking much tougher sentences for convicted child killers, an initiative launched by the family of a Serbian teenager brutally murdered in 2014.
Experts, however, question the deterrent effect of longer sentences, saying the impact depends on numerous factors including the type of crime involved. Too often, the purpose is to demonstrate to society that the government in question is “taking action”, said Benjamin van Rooij, professor of Law and Society at the University of Amsterdam.
“For centuries –I can trace it back 2,000 years – we have told each other that when something bad happens, the only way out of it is punishment,” van Rooij told BIRN. But the evidence as to the effectiveness is “really mixed”.
“So they may give the public a better feeling by having higher punishments, but actually, that may not really reduce the problem,” he said, and cited research in some democratic societies that suggests they don’t always support tougher punishment.
UN: Under-14s ‘unlikely to understand impact of actions’
While the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Britain is 10, in Europe the average is 14.
In 2019, a United Nations committee on the rights of children cited evidence “in the fields of child development and neuroscience” that maturity and the capacity for abstract reasoning “is still evolving in children aged 12 to 13 years due to the fact that their frontal cortex is still developing”.
“Therefore, they are unlikely to understand the impact of their actions or to comprehend criminal proceedings,” the committee concluded, calling on countries with a limit lower than 14 to “take note of recent scientific findings” and increase the age accordingly.
Van Rooij argued that it “doesn’t really make sense” to apply adult punishment to children.
“What you need for them is support and treatment and not just locking them up,” he said. Indeed, prison can be counter-productive.
“So if you’re put in prison, you’ll probably come out more criminal and probably once you leave prison, you have fewer opportunities in society, for jobs for schools and for housing,” van Rooij told BIRN.
Evidence ‘not conclusive’
Only last year, Vucic announced longer sentences for sexual and domestic violence, apparently in response to public anger over a tabloid interview with a convicted rapist days after his release from prison.
Domestic violence is a major issue in Serbia, where 58 women were killed between January 2019 and June 2022, according to the Belgrade-based Autonomous Women’s Centre.
Vucic promised a “revolution” in the state’s response, announcing that domestic violence would be punishable by between six months and five years in prison, up from three months to three years, even more if a weapon is used.
The ‘revolution’, however, did not deter a man in central Serbia from killing his 65–year-old wife with a hunting rifle in December 2022, media reported. Three weeks later, a man in Belgrade killed a 27-year-old woman, taking the toll of femicides in Serbia last year to 27, according to the feminist association Femplatz.
As of May 10, 17 women or girls had been killed this year by a family member or partner.
Van Rooij said that, while there is evidence that the prospect of punishment may deter non-violent crime, “for violent crime the evidence is not conclusive”.
BIRN has reported previously on the leniency courts often exercise towards perpetrators of sexual violence, though experts again stress the tougher punishment should be only one tool used to combat the issue.