“A child who misbehaves gives you an alarming warning sign: there’s something I don’t understand, I don’t want, and thus I’m protesting – it can be anything. Why shouldn’t we ask if what is it? It always works, always! Even when the child is already used to being punished, beaten, etc.”- Renate Winter, Judge, Vice President of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
When I worked for the National Probation Agency as a social worker, working on the cases with juveniles were an important part of my job. I met and talked with the children in the prosecutor’s offices and probation bureaus, in their homes, and the penitentiary facilities. When entering the prison I was going through the many entrances protected with heavy iron doors, grills, and heavy locks to meet with the juvenile for an interview, I was developing a feeling that it was an excessive measure to keep children in here for public safety. After talking to the children about their lives both in and out of the institution, family, school, friends, illegal act and attitudes towards committed, emotions and health, expectations for the future, etc, on my way back, sometimes, I was re-realizing where I was. I often felt guilty that the child was staying there, and I was coming out. At that moment, I had a question of whether it was necessary to keep children in prison to ensure the safety of the public, redress the effects of committed, prevent re-offending, and I would not say otherwise. At such times, in my hands, there was an opportunity – an individual assessment report, awaited by a prosecutor or a judge, and based on which (among other circumstances) it should be decided what punishment would be appropriate to achieve the goals of the sentence. And here is a new challenge. The report had to address all the issues concerning the juvenile, and it should be impartial.I never used the term “convict” in the report because it is just one role of the child in the criminal justice system, the one side. I believed that in such a case, my report would not differ from the legal records and would give nothing new to the criminal proceedings. I also believed that I, a social worker in the juvenile justice system, was taking part in this process to deliver the perception about the convicted child from a different perspective.
When I worked together with prosecutors and judges, their attitudes toward convicted children were often incomprehensible to me. I was thinking and being vocal that I would never be the one to decide between a person’s imprisonment and the duration of detention. I often felt anger and astonishment, I considered them as indifferent people who decide about punishment and seem to care less about how it will affect the life of this person in the long-term. After a while, I realized that the reasons for my lenient attitude toward minors also seemed incomprehensible to the representatives of the judiciary system. Perhaps they, from their perspective, were considering my point of view incompatible, perhaps even useless for the current process.
At one conference, I have heard from several judges they had never been to a penitentiary facility during their full judicial practice, while perhaps they were deciding on the imprisonment of different people on the daily basis. I remembered that I completely shared the position of the victims of the crime when I found myself in the same role and when I listened to them at mediation conferences. Before that, I could understand people who committed crimes better than victims. I felt more about the conditions of the child in custody when I saw and talked to the minor in the detention. I realized that we are considering different aspects of one process and, in most cases, discussing it without taking into account other stages. For the court and the prosecutor’s office, it seems most important to issue an appropriate indictment under available law. Most judges do not have information on the effectiveness of the sentence imposed on specific juvenile, on whether the sentence reached its goal as a result of the chosen penalty.Accordingly, they lack the opportunity to base their decisions on other knowledge and experience except for the existing legislative framework. When the work of mine and my colleagues’, social workers from the penitentiary and probation system, was starting after sentencing and aimed at implementing that sentence to avoid reoffending. According to our belief, the better way to achieve this is to support the minor in understanding the consequences of their actions for themselves, the victims, the general society, and based on this to change their attitudes and lifestyle. For this, we need to listen to them and understand them, be genuinely interested in improving their lives, and to support them accordingly. For both – for them and us – an important precondition for implementing the above is to choose the appropriate punishment.
After realizing this difference, I have stopped arguing, started listening to and observing – I shifted to dialogue and tried to understand their perspective. As a result, I realized that sometimes in the process I was losing moderation, and considering my side as being more important for achieving the final result. Although professionals involved in juvenile justice are well aware that the goal of the sentence is to restore justice, prevent re-offending, and re-socialize the offender, it still seems difficult for us to imagine how it looks like in practice. In this process, we perform our role within one short-term task, although we acknowledge that the above goals cannot be achieved only by sentencing or rehabilitation work, for this, we need to transform our perspectives into the interconnected parts of one process. Therefore, I consider it important to think about implementing the goals of justice from the start of the criminal proceedings involving minors and for each participant in the process to feel responsible for the final result, regardless of the stage of our active involvement; this responsibility should be shown in all our decisions and actions related to individual factors of this goal and the person.