Children do not belong in prison. They do not belong behind bars. Children should go to school. They should be playing with their friends. They should be together with their families.
This is reflected in the international standard that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child must be in conformity with the law, and must be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, which is laid down in the 1985 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the Beijing Rules), the 1990 United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (Havana Rules), and the 1990 United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (Riyadh Guidelines). Importantly, it is also recognised in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 192 countries.
Nevertheless, on a global scale, it is estimated that over one million children are deprived of their liberty. Worldwide children in conflict with the law are being held under arrest, in detention or imprisonment, frequently in conditions that constitute degrading and inhumane treatment.
Children in detention are not high on the social and political agenda. They are out of sight and easily forgotten. Official data can be difficult to obtain. Such data is often either inadequate or lacking.
In the great majority of countries, most children deprived of their liberty have not actually been convicted of an offence: they have simply been apprehended or are on pre-trial remand. It is during pre-trial detention that many of the worst human rights abuses occur.
In addition, most are accused of a minor or non-violent offence, and will not receive a custodial sentence when they finally appear in court. Only a small number have committed serious offences.
As regards those juveniles who are indeed sentenced to deprivation of liberty, the high cost, overall ineffectiveness and counter-productive consequences of custodial sentences are now well documented. The statement that “kids do not belong behind bars” is not simply based on a sentiment of pity; it is the outcome of important research and numerous studies on youth and crime.
Children in conflict with the law have rights, too. Abandoning children in a penal institutional system prejudices their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. It puts them at serious risk of being denied appropriate health care and education, and of mental and physical abuse inflicted or tolerated by state employees in the name of discipline.
Yet recourse to custodial sentences, in most countries, continues to be anything but “a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”, in total contradiction with United Nations standards.
These are just some of the research results that can be found in DCI’s report Kids Behind Bars. A study on children in conflict with the law: towards investing in prevention, stopping incarceration and meeting international standards, which includes 22 country reports.
Similarly, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has indicated, in its Concluding Observations, that all States Parties are having difficulty in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and related United Nations standards and norms concerning children in conflict with the law.
We believe that proper implementation not only gives children’s rights real meaning, but also increases the likelihood that the children themselves will have real meaning in their lives and be less likely to become involved in crime.
Sound and thorough implementation is more than an investment in children. It is an investment in community safety and crime prevention.