The minimum age of criminal responsibility ranges from 7 to 16 across UN member states. The most common age (in 49 countries) is 14.*
Children in detention facilities have been seriously impacted by Covid-19 response measures. Children were not exempted from the suspension of in-person visits, limits on education or support programmes and severe restrictions on movement throughout the pandemic. In Australia, there were reports of prolonged lockdown and conditions likely amounting to solitary confinement of children in detention centres in Queensland and Victoria.
In the UK, young people aged 12-17 were held in solitary confinement, spending up to 23.5 hours a day alone in their cells for significant periods of time. Almost all education and therapeutic services stopped, and children’s right to 14 hours out of their cell was reduced to 1.5 hours.
The implementation of programmes and non-custodial alternatives for children in conflict with the law has also been disrupted in many countries during the pandemic. In Georgia, most diversion and mediation programmes were suspended, and the few that could continue were adapted to take place remotely. Pilot programmes on restorative justice were also suspended. In Kyrgyzstan, during the lockdown in early 2020, visits by probation officers to child clients were suspended (as for adults) and were instead conducted over the phone. This limited contact to a simple check as to whether a child was at home, excluding the usual support.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund’s (UNICEF) analysis of COVID-19 measures for children in conflict with the law between March and June 2020, countries that had invested in diversion and alternatives to detention over time prior to the pandemic did not have large child populations in detention and, therefore, faced less pressure to urgently release children to reduce risks of transmission. In Montenegro, for example, years of investment in diversion from arrest and detention meant there were fewer than 20 children and young adults in detention in the entire country when the pandemic hit. The availability of alternatives was also a key factor in enabling the release of children from detention as mechanisms, and services were established for their safe reintegration into society.
UNICEF’s analysis of December 2020 showed that more than 11,600 children were released in at least 37 countries through using alternatives to imprisonment and suspending new admissions of children into detention. However, children were not always included in release mechanisms as part of COVID-19 responses, despite calls from the World Health Organization, UNICEF and many other institutions to do so. A study on 53 jurisdictions revealed that only a third of these had explicit measures to release children from detention, and reported that data and information was scarce as to whether they were actually implemented.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, an estimated 3,000 children were released from detention, including 85 per cent of children in detention (883 children) in Sudan as a result of three government directives. Authorities in the Gaza Strip mandated judges to take urgent steps to conclude trials for children in pre-trial detention, which led to the closure of 37 cases with no sentence for deprivation of liberty. In Bangladesh, 343 children (a third of the 1,140 children detained in centres with official capacity for 600) were released, mostly from pre-trial detention, in seven working days following the introduction of virtual hearings. More than 600 children benefitted from release mechanisms across 10 countries in West and Central Africa, including 46 per cent of recorded children in detention in Nigeria. Over 1,400 children have been released from federal and regional penitentiary institutions in Ethiopia, and about 42 per cent of children (457 aged 16–18) and young people (1,231 aged 18–21) were released from juvenile and adult prisons in Mozambique as part of an amnesty.
In many countries, reintegration services for children (when available) do not include specific support for returning to the community, as noted in the 2019 Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. However, some countries have made concerted efforts to support and care for children upon and following release from detention during the pandemic. In Guinea, about 104 children (more than half of all detained children) including 5 girls were released into the care of the NGO, SOS Mineurs, or ‘one-stop social welfare shops’ and then reintegrated with their families. In Mali, a Committee for Monitoring and Reintegration of Children in Contact with the Law (COSURE) was set up and has supported children that have been released from detention, and authorities in Mauritania have coordinated with civil society to ensure minimum social services for children who have been released.
Children from ethnic minorities and Indigenous communities continue to be disproportionately imprisoned in some countries.
Children from ethnic minorities and Indigenous communities continue to be disproportionately imprisoned in some countries. New analysis in Australia found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are imprisoned at 17 times the rate of non-Indigenous children nationally, and up to 43 times the rate in the Northern Territory. While the imprisonment of children aged 10 to 17 years has halved in the US in the past decade, new research has found black children are imprisoned at higher rates than their white peers in every state, with an imprisonment rate five times higher nationwide; the imprisonment rates of American Indian and Latino youth are 243 and 42 per cent higher than those of white children, respectively. A similar picture is seen in England and Wales, where 57 per cent of children in custody on remand in 2019-20 were from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
*Information provided by the Child Rights International Network (CRIN), March 2021. NB: There are some countries that do not have an absolute lower minimum age of criminal responsibility. Data is based on the lowest age at which a child can be charged and convicted of a criminal offence within the criminal justice system, rather than how the term is used in the national legal system.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.