Reflections on CRC Article 37

Children who are accused of breaking the law should not be killed, tortured, treated cruelly, put in prison forever, or put in prison with adults. Prison should always be the last choice and only for the shortest possible time.

Laksmi Pamuntjak
boy and prison bars
01 November 2019

Justice is often equated with fairness, and while the two principles often constitute rules of ‘fair play,’ in practice they mean different things to different societies. And consensus on this matter is hardest to reach when it concerns children. According to the Indonesian Law on Juvenile Criminal Justice System, no children under 14 should be put in prison. The same law encourages restorative justice practices, aimed at rehabilitating erring youth by reconciling them with victims and the community at large.

But no one juvenile crime is the same—each disturbs or assaults our sense of justice differently. We are as scandalised about stories of teens being tried and sentenced for petty crimes as we are about teens proven guilty of major crimes. In cases of the latter, how can we prove that adult trial and punishment is not appropriate for the juvenile perpetrator? Even when forgiveness is possible, how is justice served if a strict ‘life for a life’ philosophy cannot be applied to all criminals of heinous crimes?

Of course, there are no easy answers. But accepting that juveniles and adults are different is a start. The adolescent brain is not fully developed, so science says, and children are thus less culpable and have much greater capacity for self-improvement. Once we accept this, we accept that children should be sentenced differently from adults and given more opportunities to demonstrate change. Hence the need for two systems—adult courts and the juvenile justice system.

Second, we need to acknowledge the destructive effects of adult prisons on young prisoners. Precisely because their identities are not yet fully formed, youth offenders are more likely to adopt negative behaviours that are the norm in a hostile prison environment. Overwhelmed by fear and hopelessness their focus will be on nothing else but their own survival. This is why there needs to be a special place for them—an environment where they can gain an insight into why they think and behave the way they do, and what they can do to change it.

Third, don’t write off the power of redemption and forgiveness. Some may say restorative justice is nothing more than a ‘slap on the wrist,’ effectively getting offenders off the hook and bullying victims into accepting inadequate, if insincere apologies. But it can go a long way to bringing closure and healing to both parties. After all, forgiveness is about empowering yourself, not empowering your past.


Though these reflections were inspired by the accompanying photographs, the texts do not describe the life or story of any person depicted within them.


Convention on the rights of the child

In 1989, governments across the world promised all children the same rights by adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Convention says what countries must do so that all children grow as healthy as possible, can learn at school, are protected, have their views listened to, and are treated fairly.

As part of Indonesia’s celebrations in November 2019, to mark the 30th anniversary of the CRC, UNICEF asked Indonesian author Laksmi Pamuntjak to help us envision some of these CRC articles. Inspired by photos and images from our database, and working with our programme specialists, Laksmi created 15 fictional texts on some of the most relevant articles for the Indonesian context.

Though these reflections were inspired by the accompanying photographs, the texts do not describe the life or story of any person depicted within them.