Around 261,200 children worldwide are estimated to have been in detention on any given day in 2020, according to new data published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in November 2021. This represents an increase from previous estimates of between 160,000 and 250,000 children detained on any given day in 2018, in the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. This is despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child being clear that deprivation of liberty of children shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
Children are likely to be charged with ‘status offences’ that are not criminal offences for adults, including truancy, disobedience and drinking alcohol. Often, children in detention are pre-trial detainees held for long periods before their case is heard. In many criminal justice systems, children are treated the same as adults and as a result have no chance at a fair trial.
Children from poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, migrant and indigenous communities, ethnic and religious minorities, the LGBTQ community as well as children with disabilities and above all boys are over-represented in detention and throughout judicial proceedings.
Imprisonment of children isolates them from their families and communities and carries great stigma. It also carries risk of torture and physical or emotional abuse. Violence continues to be endemic at all stages of deprivation of liberty in the administration of justice, including sexual violence against boys and girls.
Child-friendly justice systems are essential to promoting the well-being of the child. These systems need to have safeguards in place to ensure detention is only used as a last resort, and a proportionate response to any alleged or committed offence. Consideration of a child’s individual characteristics – including gender – and a focus on support and lasting rehabilitation are critical elements. Given the substantial and often irreversible effects of imprisonment, child-friendly justice systems are in the interest of both children in contact with the law and society at large.
Rehabilitation and reintegration
Alternatives to imprisonment