When teenagers are in the dock

The parents were speechless as they listened to their son’s teachers tell them about the 13-year-old’s «school record.» Along with two of his fellow pupils, both girls, the boy had taken up a collection from his classmates for the homeless and the victims of the Iraq war, who naturally never saw any of the money. The three children split the proceeds three ways, but when these were exhausted the boy blackmailed one of the girls into paying him regular amounts for months, in return for his silence. The boy was expelled from the school of course, but then what? While juvenile crime has not risen dramatically in Greece, what is causing concern is the fact that children aged as young as 10 are becoming involved, particularly in drug- and alcohol-related crimes, theft, or driving a motorcycle without a license, often having being lured into such activities by an older child. Organized juvenile crime is on the rise in Europe, with gangs of children committing vandalism in schools, stealing from their classmates or causing disturbances at sporting events. The Justice Ministry, after many years of inaction, has introduced new measures as part of an integrated framework of welfare, prevention and punishment of those aged 8 to 21. For the last 15 years there have been over 6,700 cases coming to juvenile court every year, resulting in incarceration in reform institutions for robbery, grievous bodily harm and other crimes. The children are recruited by adult criminals, according to Professor K. Spinelli, president of the Special Legislative Committee for the review of juvenile law. According to studies, juvenile prisoners in special institutions continue to lead a life of crime even after their release. According to Nestoras Kourakis, a professor of criminology, a major survey carried out over the past 15 years on the profile of the average juvenile offender, they are usually sentenced for the first time at the age of 13 or 14. Drugs play an important role in their lives. Almost two thirds of young prisoners say they had tried drugs before their detention and 37 percent admit to using drugs often. Family It is family and personal issues that lead most young people to a life of crime. These are mostly children who are uneducated and from poor and often dysfunctional families, and who have often had to leave their home and school. These children were born and raised in disadvantaged areas of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. Their parents are sometimes illiterate (48 percent, compared to 8 percent of the general population) and most are in the lowest income groups (skilled workers or craftsmen). Seventeen percent of the parents do not have a regular income. Some youths in prison (12 percent) lost one of their parents through death or divorce by the age of 12. Even in families where both parents were present, in 35 percent of cases there were frequent arguments, or physical violence against the children (32 percent). Just over a quarter of these children are illiterate, but those who have attended school did not like it, with 56 percent of them having to repeat a year because of frequent absences (compared to 7 percent of the general population). The common denominator among all these children is a poor relationship with the rest of the family, and by extension with society and its institutions. At the moment there are 458 juveniles in detention (down from 481 in 2001), of whom 289 are foreigners. Crimes Most of the crimes committed by young people are traffic violations; the annual average is 5,430 cases of young people driving without licenses. Therefore most court cases against young people are not really of a criminal nature. There are far fewer cases of damage to property (about 850 a year) or bodily harm (about 170 cases a year). Kourakis does point out that the data only refer to cases that actually went to trial, and therefore do not give a true picture of juvenile crime. Nevertheless, the number of serious crimes committed by young people is not high, nor is it increasing to a point that should give rise to concern, he added. Crime is on the rise among the under 13s and for drug-related crimes. These cases rose from five in 1984 to 54 in 1996 and 80 in 2002. Many more cases have either gone undetected or been settled out of court.