When a group of minors in Brazil beat up, raped, and left four teenage girls to die after throwing them off a cliff in late May, a debate regarding the appropriate age of criminal responsibility swept the country anew.

As the controversy raged on, reports blurred the faces of the four boys involved in the crime, omitted their names, and kept their priors a secret.

On July 9, the teenagers who raped, slit the wrists, pierced the eyes, and cut the nipples of the four girls (one of which died from the wounds) were sentenced to three years at a correctional facility for minors.

Three years.

The punishment certainly does not fit the crime, but according to Brazilian law, it does fit the ages of the accused.

In Brazil, the constitution shields those under 18 from criminal liability, leaving their misdeeds ignored and young criminals beyond the reach of justice. Underage offenders spend time in correctional institutions and asked to comply with mere "socio-educational" measures, and once they are freed, no records are kept of any crime they committed.

On the other hand, a rape charge can land those legally old enough to answer for their crimes between six and 12 years in jail, and between 12 to 30 years if the victim dies as a result. On average, adults who are convicted for rape spend at least two years behind bars.

In Piauí state, where the shocking assault took place, at least one child under the age of four is raped every week.

Crime in Brazil

Many legal experts, like former judge Luiz Flávio Gomes, consider Brazilian laws on rape and murder too "subjective."

The leeway in the wording of criminal codes is a problem in countries where blind faith in government institutions is widespread. Popular support for bills that attempt to make crimes more specific and guarantee impartiality in sentences usually opens the door to more restrictive laws that instead harm innocents and complicate legal cases, allowing criminals to escape justice.

For those who defend Brazil's Statute on Children and Adolescents, a group of laws that protect juveniles during prosecution, the age of criminal responsibility should not be lowered. They argue that only a small percentage of minors commit cruel crimes.

On the other hand, those who argue for lowering the age limit on criminal liability say statistics don't matter, and minors found guilty should still answer for their crimes. They point out, for example, that 16 and 17-year-olds are not held responsible for rape or murder, yet they are allowed to vote.

But to the camp advocating broader legal reform, age should not be a determining factor. After all, individuals are not the same and must be judged on a case-by-case basis depending on their actions. In the United States, for instance, each state is free to determine its age of criminal responsibility. For federal crimes, 11 years is the minimum age.

Property, Life, and Liberty

While criticism coming from those who want tougher laws and those who want more prevention get all the attention, little is heard about the broad reform demanded by liberals.

When the government takes on the role of moral guardian, consequences are always negative.

The freedom that comes with laws restricting government (not individuals) have the positive consequence of allowing a private moral sphere to emerge, where communities with certain values — such as the respect for property and life — can flourish.

When the government does not interfere with private life, religious and moral authorities play a bigger role among citizens. A culture that protects life and property has a better chance of being adopted in a country where reliance on the government is reduced.

In Brazil, individuals have no right to self-defense.

Because of the Disarmament Statute enacted in 2003, ordinary Brazilian citizens are not allowed to carry guns. As a consequence, crime in the South American nation continues to grow.

While large segments of the population continue to defend the current age of criminal liability and gun control, many others are pressuring politicians for drastic reform. And thanks to their efforts on social media, their calls are proving successful. Recently, Brazil's Chamber of Deputies passed a constitutional amendment to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years old.

However, since the reform hasn't become law yet, the minors who raped and beat up the four girls in Piauí won't pay for their crimes.

Let's Be Honest

If Brazilians don't come to terms with what really causes the country's problems, debate will continue to be stuck between those who support a stronger government but cannot agree on which laws must be passed.

In Brazil, conservatives and progressives are clueless about the concept of self-ownership and its relationship with individual responsibility.

Progressives would like to let people buy drugs, but not guns to defend themselves from criminals. Conservatives, on the other hand, want even harsher laws against the consumption and sale of drugs, but see no problem with jailing kids aged 15 or 16.

Unless Brazilians have a serious debate about the real extent of property rights and how to promote an environment that allows the flourishing of values, horrifying crimes will continue to shock the country, as well as the rest of the world.

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