Breaking the cycle of youth offending

John Smith Fellow Zurab Sanikidze led the process to establish a joined-up child referral system in Georgia that reduces reoffending and helps children find a path to a better future.

The age at which a person can be held responsible for committing a crime is a controversial topic and varies in different countries.

In Georgia, the age of criminal responsibility is 14, which means that children under this age can’t be held responsible for a crime. Until recently, the country had no necessary means of addressing offending – such as theft of damage of property – by children younger than 14. This made it difficult to tackle problem behaviour in a way that respected both the rights of the child and wider society.

“In 2019, when I attended the John Smith Trust fellowship programme in the UK, juvenile justice was a very hot topic,” says Zurab Sanikidze (Georgia, 2019). At that time, Zurab was Director of the Analytical Department at the Ministry of Justice of Georgia.

“I was one of the people who drew up the juvenile justice code,” he explains. “This regulates the response of the state to juveniles aged 14 and over. But there was no code for children below 14 years old who had come into conflict with the law.

“At the time, there was a huge discussion on the policy level. These are children, so they need care and attention. They don’t need a criminal justice response in the courts. But the state does need to protect society and it had no way to respond in these cases.”

Desire to drive change

Zurab grew up in Georgia in the 1990s when the country was facing many challenges from a rule of law and human rights perspective.

“That, I think, generated my interest in becoming a lawyer and a public policy specialist,” he says. “On everyday basis I was seeing things that I understood were not how it was supposed to be. But I felt I needed to change something. This was a very common feeling in my generation.”

He took his bachelor’s degree in law at Tbilisi State University, and gained LL.Ms in Public International Law and Human Rights and International Crime and Justice. He held posts in the Office of the Public Defender, the Appeals Court and the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, before moving to the Ministry of Justice.

Practical experience

When Zurab undertook his fellowship, he was interested to find out how the UK addresses this issue. He met with hosts in London and Edinburgh with expertise in the UK child referral system, in government, educational and non-governmental organisations.

“The programme brought together practical experience and theoretical knowledge,” says Zurab. “I think it was a life-changing experience in the way it made it possible to interact with people who were doing this in their job in the field.”

Zurab met Kate Aubrey at the Youth Justice Legal Centre. “In Georgia’s system, when it comes to the criminal justice, it’s primarily the state that takes care of it,” he says. “But I learned how in the UK, the state works with think-tanks and non-governmental organisations towards a common goal for its citizens and children.”

He also met with Detective Inspector Richard Cockbain, then Detective Inspector from the Scottish Police, who was working on implementing changes into the law relating to the raising of the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland. The age of criminal responsibility was raised from 8 to 12 years old in 2019. “I wanted to find out the UK’s approach,” says Zurab. “For example, what are the issues in terms of maintaining the human rights of the child on the one hand and the safety of society on the other?”

English law ‘out of step’

In fact, the UK’s approach to juvenile justice is not aligned with international standards. Although Scotland has raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland it is 10 years old – one of the lowest in Europe. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that 14 is the minimum age at which children should be held responsible for committing a crime.

Raymond Arthur, professor of law at Northumbia University, was another of Zurab’s hosts during his fellowship programme. He says: “The low age of criminal responsibility in England is out of step with other European countries, including other parts of the UK.

“It is also out of step with other areas of English law, which recognise the need to protect children from the long-term consequences of immature decision-making. For example, the age at which children can get paid employment, consent to sexual activity, legally purchase tobacco products or alcohol are all set much higher than 10 years.”

Unified approach

When Zurab returned to Georgia, he set up a working group to coordinate a new approach towards children below the age of criminal responsibility. This led to the creation in January 2020 of a new institution under the Ministry of Justice, called the child referral system.

“This recognises that there needs to be a unified and systematic approach,” he says. “It includes what happens in schools and cultural approaches like sports activities. It also increases the child’s awareness of the damage their actions have caused to victims. Our aim was to think about the future of these children and to help them to grow up in line with the law to try to prevent them reoffending.”

The results so far are encouraging, with only 9% of the children who have been referred through the system going on to reoffend. Data for this age group was not collected previously, so it is difficult to make a comparison. But anecdotal evidence points to reoffending being far higher before creation of the child referral system.

Zurab is also a member of a juvenile justice working group we established in 2021. The group met in July 2021 and February 2022 to share ideas and insights between our Fellows in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and also UK counterparts working in the youth justice system.

Advancing the rule of law

After completing his fellowship, Zurab was promoted to Chairman of the Ministry of Justice, where he continued to lead public service reforms. In March 2022, he moved to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a senior legal advisor. In June 2023, he was promoted within OSCE and now heads up the Rule of Law and Human Rights Department.

“I’m based in Belgrade, Serbia,” he says. “My role is to support the governments when it comes to institutional reforms in the rule of law and human rights. It’s to provide expertise, capacity building and recommendations, working with governments, civil society organisations and academia to advance the rule of law and democratisation of a country.”

Being part of the John Smith Trust network continues to have a positive impact on his career. “It’s a network of young, brilliant people working in government, non-profits, international sectors and decision makers in different areas in different countries. It’s one huge platform of cooperation.

“It makes a real difference when people from different nationalities and cultures come together under the same umbrella to share ideas.”