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Juvenile Justice reform story

© UNICEF Azerbaijan/Pirozzi/2008

Juvenile Justice reform story

By Rob Few

Emin doesn't look like a criminal. In a plain blue and white V-neck shirt, his hair neatly combed, hands folded in his lap, he looks and sounds like a polite teenager talking to adults he doesn't know very well. This is because that is what he is – but not what he was a few months ago.

Emin, now 18, is taking part in a UNICEF pilot programme to prevent him from punishment oriented criminal justice system either by diverting them from imprisonment after committing minor offences or, as in Emin's case, identifying children who are going off the rails and getting them back on course before they committee a crime.

“I wasn't going to school,” explains Emin shyly. He is sitting in the psychologist's office of the UNICEF-supported Juvenile Justice Diversion Centre in Baku. He massages the fingers of one of the hands in his lap, looks to the floor, looks up and continues: “I used to skip classes all the time and encourage other students to skip classes, too. And I used to cause trouble,” he says, referring to minor acts of vandalism. “One day, the director of the centre came to my school looking for kids who were doing badly. He said there is a centre run by UNICEF.”

Emin, his teachers and his parents decided he should try it.

The Centre is housed on the second floor of a rundown apartment. It offers four-month program for children who are referred by the police after committing minor offences, or by schools who are concerned about their wilder pupils. The courses involve a mixed bag of, among other things, psychological counselling, English and computer lessons, art classes and sessions to develop confidence, self esteem and lifeskills.

For Emin, it is the art classes that have most inspired him. He says he wants to go back to school and, when he finishes, study to become an artist. He's already showing potential, coming second in a national competition for children to draw pictures on the subject of child rights. Emin's winning picture showed a ragged young boy washing cars while two other children walked past on their way to school. It is about the importance of education.

“Being on the programme has changed me,” says Emin, smiling, more confident now he has been talking for a while. “I began to realise the meaning of life and where I should be. I guess this picture shows my progress.”

Emin is lucky. For other children, little more than truancy and vandalism have led to trouble with the police and then incarceration in the prison system, or institutionalisation in a home for “difficult” boys, which can mean much the same thing. At present, some form of detention is the criminal justice system's first response for dealing with children convicted of crime. There are no government services providing alternatives even if such exist in the law, such as non-custodial sentences, where children do community service instead of going to jail, or mediation – bringing victims and offenders together to agree on some form of restitution other than imprisonment.

From the moment of arrest, children are often treated just like adults. They face the same judges and police in the same courts. Sometimes they even share the same cells. Their education is abandoned during what can be lengthy periods of remand. There are few state provisions to take account of the vulnerability or special needs of children, and those that do exist are not implemented. It can be a frightening and brutalising experience. It can also be the first of many such experiences: once children are sucked into the system, there are almost no services to get them back into their schools and communities. Once branded a criminal as a child, it is hard not to become one as an adult.

Fortunately, the government is carrying out a complete review of the criminal justice system, and UNICEF  has successfully campaigned for juvenile justice – how the criminal system deals with children accused and convicted of crimes and how it deals with child victims of crime – to be part of that review.

One aspect of this is to set up diversion centres like the one attended by Emin in Baku. These prevent children committing crimes in the first place, or provide a second chance to children convicted of minor offences. Ninety-eight per cent of such offenders take that chance to get their lives back on track and do not re-offend.

UNICEF has also trained more than 400 judicial professionals, including judges, prosecutors and police officers, on how to deal with children and on child rights, and has drawn up curricula for inclusion in the training of all new police officers, judges and prosecutors.



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