Towards a justice system fit for children

Globally, UNICEF estimates that 261,000 children are being detained in the justice system, evidence in itself that our societies and systems are failing our children – and we need reform.

Usually children are held in detention for petty crimes, some have been coerced by adults and many are the victims of prejudice related to race, ethnicity and social or economic status.

Despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child being the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world, when it comes to children’s rights within the justice system – they are being seriously let down. At the John Smith Trust our Fellows are looking for ways to change this.

Working for reform of juvenile justice

In 2021, we established a working group to share experiences, insights and solution-oriented ideas between our Fellows in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and also with UK counterparts working in the youth justice system.

In the countries where Fellows work one of the major barriers to progress is the legacy of the Soviet era mindset towards juvenile justice – which takes a punitive approach. Our Fellows are working hard to transform this approach into one that prioritises prevention and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law – avoiding criminalising youth offenders.

Azerbaijani human rights lawyer Ramil Iskandarli, who instigated the working group, says: “Sharing knowledge and working together in this way is an opportunity to accelerate progress and for all our countries to bring about a justice system that is fit for children – which is the very least they deserve.”

Changing mindsets

Despite nuances between countries, there are many similarities in the challenges Fellows face in implementing reforms and preventing criminalisation of young people, such as:

  • political indifference to passing progressive legislation
  • lack of a clear and coherent national policy on juvenile justice
  • translating good written strategies, policies and laws on juvenile justice into practice
  • capacity and will to provide individualised, case-by-case approaches to tackle the root causes of juvenile crime
  • ensuring a multi-sector approach, involving social services, education, civil society, police, courts, housing and healthcare.

Olimpia Gribincea, a Fellow and director of the National Center for State Courts in Moldova, says: “ We are doing a lot of training with legal professionals in Moldova. We’ve published a lot of manuals and guides. However, their attitude is changing very slowly. It takes a while to change mindsets.”

The working group recognises that civil society has an incredibly valuable role to play in progressing and protecting children’s rights – especially in relation to juvenile justice. Its members are working hard to galvinise fellow citizens and to put pressure on governments to reform outdated systems

Timur Shaikhutdinov, a Fellow who works for Civic Union – a network of 28 civil society organisations throughout Kyrgyzstan, says: “I’m working with an NGO promoting police reform and security sector reform in general; now we’re trying to push our government to make a new system for crime prevention. We’re working with the ministry of internal affairs to prepare a national concept on crime prevention for the next six years. One of the main sections will be about juvenile justice and tackling anti-social behaviour. Since Scotland achieved outstanding results in working with children who offend and those at risk of offending, I believe the CYCJ expertise will benefit our activities and further develop the national concept.”

A rights-based approach to justice

Currently, in Scotland, a huge shift is happening in all areas of youth justice work, and wider children’s policy, practice and legislation. Recently, the working group met with Donna McEwan and Ruth Keracher from the Children’s and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) to find out more about their ground-breaking work, at the core of which is a rights-respecting approach to justice for children and young people.

Donna says: “Do we currently have a youth justice system in Scotland fit for children? The answer is – not yet, but we’re working on it. Through our research we’re working hard to improve our understanding of justice for children and young people. We use this information to seek improvements in policy and practice. But most importantly at the heart of it all is our approach to engaging young people, amplifying their voices and ensuring their participation in decision-making processes.”

One key issue is how to create spaces and processes that are accessible to children and allow them to advocate for their own needs and rights. Umida Yuldosheva, a Fellow from Uzbekistan who works for the Research Institute of Family and Women, says: “There should be effective mechanisms in the education system and communities and non-governmental sectors to work with children in conflict with law, giving them extra opportunities for education, social adaptation and psychological support.”

Progress on children’s rights

Many countries are beginning to see significant progress, such as Kyrgyzstan, where civil society organisations have been particularly successful in promoting protection of children’s rights.

In 2012, Kyrgyzstan adopted the Child Code, which includes all norms and legislation, and was shaped by recommendations from the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Then in 2021 it upated the code, further strengthening the rights and protections for children. The changing attitudes to children and their rights has clearly contributed to the decline in the numbers of children held in detention, which are now very low, as reported recently in the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting.

Similarly, in 2019, the Georgian Parliament adopted the Code of Rights of the Child. Zurab Sanikidze, a Fellow from Georgia, says: “The purpose of the Code is to ensure the welfare of the child. It determines the fundamental rights and freedoms of the child and establishes legal grounds for the functioning of a system for the protection and support of the fundamental rights and freedoms of children.”

Youth engagement in juvenile justice reforms

The examples of progress are encouraging, but no matter which country you look at, there is consensus from juvenile justice experts that more needs to be done, and with a bigger focus on youth engagement.

Ruth, from Scotland’s CYCJ, says: “Participation can become an add-on or afterthought, which isn’t good enough. So we push for youth-led projects, projects where we’ve got resources, money, time and workers who can build positive relationships with young people to help them take part. We recognise that if we want to involve young people in decision making it is going to take time. We must make sure the approaches we take are meaningful and relevant for young people. Children feel they’ve been over consulted – asked the same questions time and again – but nothing ever changes. What they need now, is to see action.”

In 2020, Scotland launched The Promise, which commits Scotland to “come together and love its most vulnerable children to give them the childhood they deserve.”

The foundations for change

Donna says: “We’ve been pushing for change for a number of years, and it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere and then sometimes it takes other pieces of the jigsaw to come together. When The Promise was published it helped drive youth justice down a road that we have been trying to get down for about fifteen years. Sometimes it feels like you don’t move, but you have to build that foundation. And then you can jump very quickly. We are now really pushing to take children out of the justice system and I think it’s the leverage of other voices. We’re hoping to take everybody with us on that journey.”

Each country will be at a different stage and have its own journey to make. But by working together and sharing ideas there is always the possibility to accelerate down the road.

For Azerbaijan, Ramil says: “At the moment we are in the process of establishing a more progressive system by using alternatives to deprivation of liberty, and promoting social rehabilitation. I see that the way things are being done in Scotland, especially with children and young people’s participation in the decision making process, enabling them to influence state policy implementation – this will be the next step we need to make. It was really interesting to learn about the Scottish experience on that and now we have a much clearer vision of how to move forward.”

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