By Nattha Keenapan
(This article was published in the Bangkok Post on August 28, 2007)
Bangkok, August 2007 - Last month, 14-year-old Wit* was arrested by police for stealing a 10-kilogramme of spool of electrical wire from a house where he was employed as a part-time construction worker. He spent one night behind bars at the local police station before his weeping and distraught mother bailed him out.
A few years ago, Wit, a high school dropout, would have been formally charged with theft, and he probably would have ended up being sentenced to a term in a juvenile detention centre. But under an innovative programme that seeks to keep young, first- time offenders out of the formal criminal justice system, Wit is now paying for his crime by doing a community service of his own choosing – cleaning the large mosque in the Bangkok suburb where he lives.
Wit’s case was diverted to the Family and Community Group Conferencing (FCGC), a “child-friendly” government programme that deals with children who have committed minor crimes. In addition to diverting children away from the formal system, it seeks to restore social harmony between the victim and child offender as well as within the community at large.
As part of the process, Wit sat down with his parents, the house owner, a local community leader and the authorities, including a police officer, a prosecutor, a psychologist, a social worker and a staff member of the Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection, who acted as a conference facilitator.
“We talked it through about what happened and what we should do next,” said Somsak Raman, the community leader. “The boy feels sorry for what he has done and he has learned the consequences. The house owner has forgiven him. This is the first time our community has been involved in solving a problem like this.”
If Wit’s case had been prosecuted under the criminal justice system, it could have taken months or even years before it came to a conclusion.
“Children can be stigmatized for life if they have to go through such a process, even if all they committed was a very minor offense,” said Amanda Bissex, Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF Thailand. “They risk being excluded from their schools and communities. And if children are not bailed out and have to stay in the Juvenile Observation and Protection Center while awaiting the verdict, they are denied an education for a long period of time,”
Bissex noted that the Convention on the Rights of the Child urges governments to establish ways for children who get into trouble to be diverted away from the formal criminal justice system.
“Children need to be given the chance to make amends and get back on track as productive members of their family and community,” Bissex said.
The driving force behind the establishment of the FCGC was Wanchai Roujanavong, the Director-General of Department of Probation and the former Director-General of Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection. Wanchai said The FCGC programme reflects Thailand’s long tradition of using community-based mechanisms to resolve disputes, a tradition that faded after the Thai legal system was modernized in the 19th century.
The first FCGC was organized in June 2003 by the Ministry of Justice with support from UNICEF. It was introduced after Wanchai and his colleagues’ visited New Zealand in 2000 to learn about child-friendly judicial procedures there. Adapted from the New Zealand’s Family Group Conferencing, FCGC was a breakthrough initiative for the Thai juvenile justice system.
“Everyone working on juvenile justice issues agreed that there should be a mechanism to support non-prosecution of children,” said Vimai Srichantra, the child and youth development expert for the Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection. “But we didn’t know what kind of measures to use until we heard about family group conferencing,”
Thailand’s juvenile justice laws contain an article allowing the Director of the Juvenile Observation and Protection Center to ask for the charges to be dropped against a young offender if it is believed that the child can change his or her behavior. But this article was not used until the first FCGC conference since there was no appropriate mechanism to support such an opinion by a Director.
During the conference, Wit cried when he talked about stealing the electrical wire. The house owner then shared his feelings, and as soon as the house owner finished Wit knelt down in front of him and apologized. Then the weeping boy hugged his parents.
“At this point of the conference, almost every child will apologize without having anyone tell him to do so,” said Vimai, while observing the closed-door conference through a TV monitor together with a visitor. All conversation in the conference room is muted to respect the child’s right to privacy.
“He would begin to realize that it is not only about stealing from the house owner, but that there is more to it than that. He has hurt and disappointed many people, including his parents,” Vimai said.
“When the child becomes emotional it is very important, because at that moment we know that the child has really learned from their mistake,” she said. “It is the duty of the conference facilitator to lead the child and bring out the emotions.”
When the child realizes how their actions have affected other people, they will understand what should be done next, Vimai said.
And that’s how Wit volunteered himself to clean the mosque. Sometimes the psychologist, social worker or community leader will guide the child toward what they should do. Many children do a community service that is related to their minor crime, such as helping to take care of patients in an accident ward if they are arrested for speeding or careless driving.
To date, 15,026 juvenile cases have been diverted to FCGC. There were 5,265 cases last year alone, according to the Department of the Juvenile Observation and Protection.
However, the number of children involved with FCGC is relatively small compared to the more than 48,000 children who came into contact with the law last year – most for offenses such as stealing, drugs and physical assaults. On average last year, more than 2,200 children were being held each day in a Juvenile Observation and Protection Centres across the country awaiting judicial decisions. In addition, nearly 5,000 children were held each day in confined training centers following sentencing.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Thailand is currently 7 years of age. In April, the cabinet agreed in principle to raise it to 12 years old. In addition, young children are housed together with older children since there is no policy on separating children by age or by the degree of their offenses.
Of all the children who came into contact with the law last year, about 12 per cent committed second offenses. However, the rate of children involved in FCGC who have committed second offenses is less than 3 per cent.
“Today we are trying to divert as many children to FCGC mechanism as possible,” says Paisan Wichienkuer, Director General of Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection. “But not every case can be diverted to FCGC. It must be the child’s first offense and the punishment for their crime must be less than five years. Moreover, the victim must give his/her consent to organize the conference and that’s the most difficult part.”
Once all parties at the conference have agreed, the prosecutor issues an order of non-prosecution. The Juvenile Observation and Protection Center, however, still has to follow-up on the child’s case for 1-2 years and to provide assistance if necessary.
Vimai says FCGC is a venue for children and their parents to openly discuss their problems and create better understanding within the family. It often turns out that the conference is the place where the child and parents give each other their first hugs in years, if not the first time they have ever talked openly to each other. It also gives the community a chance to be involved in solving the problems that affect it.
UNICEF’s Bissex said that using the FCGC is far more cost effective than processing a child through the criminal justice system. With the money saved, the government can spend more on helping those child offenders who are in need of specialized assistance, she said.
In the near future, an FCGC-like process will be established in the border refugee camps. The model will also be implemented in schools to settle minor disputes. What UNICEF and child experts are hoping is that rules and regulations can be relaxed enough to involve more children in the FCGC mechanism.
“Many children who commit crimes did not have the intent to do so, and many didn’t know the consequences of their actions,” Bissex said. “Our ultimate goal is to help them reintegrate and live in harmony with the rest of society.”
*Not his real name