Justice for children
Justice systems worldwide are failing to protect children and to uphold their most basic rights.
Across the world, millions of children interact with justice systems every year.
They could be victims or witnesses to a crime. They could be alleged, accused or recognized as having broken the law. They could be in need of care or safety, or seeking to protect their rights.
But justice systems do not always fulfil the promise of fairness. Some are altogether out of reach for children, who may have no knowledge of their rights, no means to contact a lawyer, or no financial resources for legal fees. This is especially the case for vulnerable children, including those from minority groups; children with disabilities; migrant children; and children in jails, detention centres and other places that deprive them of liberty.
Nor are justice systems necessarily equipped to fulfil children’s rights and needs. Justice professionals – police, prosecutors, lawyers and judges – often lack the specialized training to support child survivors, victims, witnesses or alleged offenders. Many may not understand the gender-specific vulnerabilities children face when coming into contact with justice systems. And in some places, even social service workers, trained to be the first line of response for children in need, are not recognized or do not have sufficient resources to help children safely seek protection and justice.
Children in contact with the law
Children may come into conflict with the law for various reasons. Most have committed petty crimes or minor offences such as truancy, begging or alcohol use. Often, children who engage in criminal behaviour have been used or coerced by adults.
Despite these circumstances, children may still be placed in a detention centre or adult prison, either before or after their trial. This means girls and boys can be detained for several years and, in some cases, for indefinite periods of time.
UNICEF estimates that more than one million children worldwide are deprived of their liberty by law enforcement officials.
Children are also detained simply for migrating, suffering from mental health issues or ‘for their own protection’. Increasingly, they are put in detention centres for national security–related reasons.
Detention conditions can be severe. Centres are generally overcrowded and substandard, depriving children of their rights in many ways – including by limiting their access to health care and education.
Detention also takes a toll on children’s mental and physical health. Restrictions on movement and physical activity can hinder their development, while inadequate diets may lead to malnutrition. Exposure to unsanitary conditions in densely populated facilities compounds their susceptibility to infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV. Detained children may also experience trauma and mental health issues due to solitary confinement, abuse or neglect. And when held with adults, they are especially vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse.
Child survivors, victims and witnesses of crimes
For children who have endured violence, exploitation or abuse, the trauma may not subside when they reach safety. Justice systems meant to protect and support children who have experienced gender-based violence, child labour, trafficking, and other rights violations – as well as those who have witnessed a crime – can often compound their suffering.
In too many countries, children who are sexually exploited or trafficked end up not only arrested, but also detained. Rather than being recognized as victims, they are treated as offenders.
Child victims themselves have limited knowledge of their rights. And they are often dependent on the adults around them to bring violators to justice. Legal fees, social norms and discrimination may also bar children and their families from accessing justice systems.
Together with partners, governments, local communities and children themselves, UNICEF works to ensure that every child can access a justice system that is child-friendly, gender-sensitive and well-equipped to secure their rights. We focus on:
Encouraging child-sensitive investigations and court procedures
Alongside governments, we work in countries to train police, judges, prosecutors and lawyers on child-friendly and gender-sensitive justice approaches. We also assess and develop child-friendly and gender-sensitive procedures within courts and police systems.
Keeping children from formal criminal proceedings
We support governments and civil society organizations to divert children from formal criminal justice proceedings when possible. Instead of being drawn into proceedings that negatively affect their physical and mental health, children receive support through social services, community-based programming, and more. This also prevents children from receiving a criminal record.
Promoting and supporting restorative justice approaches
Where appropriate, we support efforts like restorative justice approaches that bring victims and offenders to actively participate alongside one another to resolve matters arising from a crime. Restorative justice approaches include measures such as mediation and conferencing.
Advancing alternatives to pre-trial and post-trial detention
We help keep children who are pending trial out of detention by supporting family and community-based options for supervision. If detention prior to the trial is unavoidable, we focus on efforts that limit the time children spend in detention. We also work with partners to advance non-custodial sanctions and other alternatives to post-trial detention. To preclude children from being sentenced to any form of detention, we create options for them to undergo reintegration, rehabilitation and supervision within their families or communities.
Providing recovery and reintegration services
We support services that allow children to recover and reintegrate with their families and local communities through personalized reintegration plans, tailored to the needs of each child.
Empowering children to claim their rights, through legal and other services
We facilitate efforts to provide children with specialized legal aid, representation and other services as needed. We also support efforts to build every child’s knowledge of their human rights and legal rights.
Preventing abuse, violence and exploitation
We recognize that – however children come into contact with the law – they are first and foremost children. Their rights, including their right to protection, must be fulfilled before, during and after they encounter the justice system. We support countries to build a comprehensive national child protection system that can prevent and respond to all forms of child neglect, violence, abuse, exploitation and harmful practices.
More from UNICEF
United Nations Guidelines on Justice in Matters Involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime: Online Training Tool
Experience and lessons learned from Iraq in the release of children from detention in response to COVID-19
Experience and lessons learned from the State of Palestine in the release of children from detention in response to COVID-19
Experience and lessons learned from Morocco in the release of children from detention in response to COVID-19
Last updated 31 January 2022