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(News Focus) Calls mounting for tougher punishment of bullies
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Dec. 29 (Yonhap) -- The suicide of a bullied student last week has sparked debate over whether to revise the current juvenile justice system to toughen punishment for bullies and violent young students.

   The suicide of a middle-school student occurred in Daegu, some 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, after the 14-year-old was seriously bullied by his classmates. The tragedy was the latest in a string of such incidents illustrating the seriousness of school violence.

   On Thursday, a Korean Internet user filed an online petition on the "Agora" bulletin board of the local Internet portal Daum, citing the need to abolish or revise the present Juvenile Law on anti-social behavior.


The petition states the system failed in its rehabilitation efforts and in not punishing serious criminal behavior by young people. The user cited the case of 16 high school students who were placed under probation, with no real punishment, the previous day for raping a mentally retarded middle-school girl in Daejeon.

   The law protects children under the age of 14 from criminal punishment. The petitioner compared the Korean case to one in the United States in which a teenage girl was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for armed robbery.

   "It is a strange law protecting juvenile criminals for all possible reasons, which makes them increasingly think little of the law," the petition reads. "It might not be too much if I say children commit serious crimes under the protection of the law.

   "The Juvenile Law is now an evil law," it added.

   The petition has already gathered thousands of signatures, prompting a flood of similar postings on global social networking services, such as Twitter and Facebook.


Critics note that the social and cultural landscape has changed considerably since 1958 when the law was first introduced. They say the law is no longer adequate to address the problems caused by violent and amoral young people.

   "It appears the time has come to abolish this law. Kids are getting crazy and violent," a Twitter user said. "These days, young people, whether they are high school or middle school students, know all sorts of things. Shouldn't the law get stronger (to punish juvenile offenders)?," another user wrote.

   Experts are divided on the mounting call for changes to the juvenile justice system.

   Some agree that the system is not adequate to guide juvenile offenders in the right direction.

   "There is a view that we should abolish or revise a clause of the Juvenile Law under which courts call in children who committed a crime and their parents then dismiss them after giving them an admonition," said Kim Ji-seon, a fellow at the Crime Prevention and Treatment Research Center of the state-invested Korean Institute of Criminology.

   "We see the clause has almost no effect in rehabilitating juveniles. The juvenile probation system is not working properly either, due to shortages of human and physical resources," Kim said.

   Others, however, defend the present system, saying it is too harsh to judge children, who lack mature judgment, under the same standard as adults.

   "Giving harsh punishment to children is like putting adult criminals to death," said Lee Seung-heon, professor of Seoul's Hanyang University, who also is an executive director of the Korean Juvenile Policy Association, an academic group.

   "If we block the way back and heavily punish minors just because they made a mistake for a moment, we may instead make them monsters," Lee said.