No age of innocence: Justice for children

Lisbet Palme * 

Whether due to government paternalism or to simple disregard for their rights, juveniles who come into conflict with the law often face justice systems that treat them capriciously and offer fewer protections than they offer adults. Children in many countries face the wrath of the law for the ‘crimes’ of being poor, neglected or abused. Regardless of the reasons for their offences, young people are entitled to fair treatment at the hands of juvenile justice systems that are designed to aid youngsters’ return to productive society as quickly as possible.  

No one can question the notion that children are entitled to the fundamental necessities of life: love and nurturance, food and shelter, health care and education. But the understanding and acceptance of another fundamental entitlement—due process of law—is harder to come by. Few countries take seriously a young person's right to fair treatment at the hands of the justice system; few adults even realize that juveniles have this right. When young people come into conflict with the law, instead of finding compassion and help, they often face harsh punishment, and without the legal protections that adults have. 

Sometimes young offenders are penalized just as if they were adults, with the maturity and experience to distinguish between right and wrong on a grown-up level. Sometimes they face even worse: Adults must be accused of breaking the law before they can be legally detained, but in many countries a judge can put children in jail simply because of 'irregular conduct'—they are dirty or are sleeping on the street or have lost their identity papers. 

Photo:UNICEF/95-10008/ToutounjiSometimes the authorities put a benevolent face on the punishment, incarcerating children 'for their own protection'. In India, for example, police can apprehend young people if they are “likely to be abused or exploited for immoral or illegal purposes or wrongful gains”—in other words, any child who is poor is liable to be victimized by the criminal system in the name of altruism. 

And sometimes juveniles in detention are abused physically and sexually, in some cases even tortured, by those who are supposed to guard them. 

This treatment is inhumane, and it is inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and has been ratified by all but two countries on earth (Somalia and the United States). When young people come into conflict with the law, they need help, not retribution. 

I was only 20 years old when I started to work for and with children in detention. My experience over the years has only strengthened my conviction that we must develop juvenile justice systems that are compassionate and rational. Our children are entitled to fair treatment, and society as a whole will benefit when they receive it.

 
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