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One mistake, what price to pay?

Child protection web story

Iqbal grew up in a dysfunctional family in a village outside the town of Klaten, Central Java. His father, a heavy drinker and a gambler, often beat the boy, his mother and his three brothers. He also refused to provide any financial support for his children’s education. Eventually, he abandoned his family to take a second wife in Jakarta. Iqbal’s mother was forced to take a job as a domestic servant in Bali, leaving her children in the care of a sister with her own family. Forced to leave school, Iqbal started hanging around with the “bad kids” from the village, leading to several brushes with the law. Convicted for stealing a bicycle in 2009, he is currently serving an 18-month sentence in a detention centre for minors.

"I was a long way from home and didn't have any money for transportation," recalls Iqbal. "I wanted to get home to my aunt. I saw that someone had left a bicycle outside the house without locking it. I was tempted to steal it. Someone saw me taking that bike and called out to other people".

From that moment, his relatively minor crime led to much bigger consequences. “I was caught by a group of villagers, who beat me and kicked me before handing me over to the police,” he claims. “No one was with me when I was questioned. My family had no idea where I was. They weren’t told for several days that I had been arrested.”

His situation today is not so different from many of the estimated 5,000 juveniles sent to prisons in Indonesia every year.

“I’m held in a cell with eight other boys,” says Iqbal. “Some are older than me, some are younger. The conditions aren’t bad, but there’s nothing to do. I don’t study or work. The kids talk about what they did and how they got caught. It’s like a training course in criminality.”

If the system was intended to reform young offenders, Iqbal doesn’t think it’s working.

The majority of the thousands of Indonesian children currently behind bars are sent to overcrowded prisons with violent adult offenders and without any special facilities to meet their needs. Children that go through the justice system often claim to suffer violence. They can be held in police detention centres in the same cells as adult offenders, often for months, without being formally charged or indicted. In many cases, their parents are not informed of their fate until long after their arrest. It is extremely rare for a lawyer to be present when a child is being interrogated or processed by police.

Despite the obvious weaknesses in the system, efforts are being made to improve the way in which Indonesia deals with its youngest citizens who come into contact with the law. In Banda Aceh, for example, police work hard to keep children’s contact with the justice system to a minimum. They often act as intermediaries to achieve reconciliation between a child accused of a crime and the victim. In many cases, victims have agreed with police that it would be counterproductive to see the child sent to prison – opening up the possibility for alternative ways of dealing with cases.

Mona’s family was affected both by the past conflict in Aceh province and the 2004 tsunami that devastated the region – both events forced the family from its home, and left them in poverty and extremely vulnerable. Mona has not attended school regularly for years. Instead, she spent her days roaming the streets with a gang of friends. Inevitably, the risk of becoming involved in petty crime was high.

“{A friend of mine} wanted to go to the big department store to buy a wrist watch,” remembers Mona. “She asked me to come with her. When we went to the store, it turned out she didn’t have any money. I was with her when she slipped the watch into her pocket. One of the store’s employees saw us. We were caught and taken to the police station.”

Unlike Iqbal, Mona found her case being handled by a special unit established to deal with crimes affecting or involving women and children. One of the officers discussed with the store manager the option of not pressing charges. He agreed that it was something worth considering.

"We met Mona and her parents. We could see how scared they were. We thought she needed discipline and guidance, but we didn't believe that prison would serve any useful purpose," explained the store manager. "So we agreed with the police that Mona should be released into the care of her parents."

Again, Mona was lucky – part of her rehabilitation included becoming enrolled in a skills-training course in which she could learn how to repair and service mobile telephones, increasing her chances of finding productive employment.

Unfortunately, such as approach is relatively exceptional in Indonesia. Less than one in ten cases result in this type of “diversion”, with 90 per cent of children being sent to prison.

However, global evidence shows that diversion is a better way of handling juvenile offenders. In countries that have adopted such an approach, there has been no significant increase in juvenile delinquency rates. However, studies by the University of California and Los Angeles have shown that 82 per cent of juveniles sent to prison reoffend, often for more serious crimes.

According to international standards, imprisonment should only be considered as an option in juvenile cases involving violence or after reoffending as a last resort. Children need a specialized system of justice that protects their right to security and safety and to freedom from violence, discrimination and stigmatization and responds to their particular needs to grow and develop. This can be achieved through interventions such as special counselling programmes, probation and community service and other less damaging punishments.

Since 2005, UNICEF has supported the efforts to attain those standards, and remove the “luck” element of responses to juvenile crime. On July 3rd 2012, the Indonesian National Parliament (DPR) passed a new law on the Juvenile Justice System (Law no. 11/2012) that increases the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 years, prioritizes diversion at all stages of the justice system, sets strict conditions for the use of pre-trial detention to make it a last resort, expands the range of options available to law enforcers and encourages the use of restorative justice practices in community contexts.

This law substantially improves the way children are treated by the Justice system in Indonesia and takes important steps to align the national legal framework to international standards. UNICEF has continuously advocated to bring the draft fully in line with international standards and its efforts have contributed to revise some key provisions. UNICEF remains committed to support the implementation of this very important law in the years to come.

On that foundation, the next steps will be to construct a systematic change in the way that law enforcers view their duties as well as investments to build their capacity. Similar investments will be needed to support probation and social workers in managing diverted cases in the community.

Those steps will ensure that more children like Mona will have a second chance in life - a chance she is not taking for granted.



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