Injustice to juvenilesLet us be clear about this: Juveniles are being subjected to grave injustices at every moment in countries around the globe. In Jamaica, children as young as 10 are held for indeterminate periods of time, often with adults, in dank detention cells. In Egypt, children who work as prostitutes are not only sexually exploited for commercial purposes but are criminalized and also face harsher penalties than adult sex workers. In Rwanda, youngsters below the country's age of criminal responsibility (14) are imprisoned in connection with the nation's recent genocide.
In Australia, aboriginal children are incarcerated at 18 times the rate of non-aboriginals. In Sudan, children are subject to punishments that include flogging, amputation and execution. In Kenya, up to 120 children a week find themselves in Nairobi's juvenile court for the 'crime' of being homeless. The majority of children in the West Bank who are sentenced according to Israeli security laws have no legal right to a lawyer.
In just the past 15 years, nine countries are known to have put offenders to death for crimes they committed as juveniles. In the US, 137 juveniles have been sentenced to death since 1973, and nine of them have been executed for crimes committed when they were under 18. While China has outlawed capital punishment for children under 18, in practice 16-year-olds can be sentenced to death—although the sentence is suspended until they reach 18.
Young people accused of heinous crimes comprise a tiny percentage of the juveniles who come into contact with the criminal justice system. The tragedy is that the great majority of juvenile offenders have committed minor crimes or are guilty of nothing at all. Many of those held in custody have not even been convicted—they are simply awaiting trial, sometimes for extremely long periods of time. In Lebanon, for instance, 90 per cent of incarcerated children are waiting to be tried, some for as long as two years.
The percentage of children who are in custody is one indication of how effectively countries are dealing with young offenders. In Italy, with a population of 57 million, about 650 juveniles are being detained on a typical day. But in the US, with a population just 5 times greater than Italy's, 150 times more children are detained—almost 100,000 young people. This wholesale locking away of young people cannot be justified on any terms.
Most countries take a passive attitude towards juvenile justice, as evident from the lack of accountability. Very few governments even keep track of how many children are involved with the criminal justice system. Any country's national statistics office can tell you the percentage of children who were born underweight, have been immunized, are enrolled in school. But ask what percentage of children are incarcerated and in most cases you will receive no precise answer. How can we possibly be caring properly for our children if we lack such fundamental information?
Governments around the world have agreed to track statistics on child health and development as a way to support their children's progress. Governments must develop similar indicators about how their young people fare in the justice system. At a minimum, every country should know how many children are being held, for how long and why.