Over one million children under the age of 18 are estimated to be detained worldwide, the majority from marginalised communities.
Placing children in detention can cause long-term psychological and physical damage, for example:
- removing children from their family and community, and from education or work opportunities, compounds existing social and economic disadvantage and marginalisation
- the stigma of a criminal record damages children’s long-term prospects
- where children are detained alongside adults, they are at risk of torture, physical and emotional abuse, and neglect.
Detention in overcrowded prisons further increases the threat to a child’s development, health and well-being.
However, in many countries children continue to be imprisoned for relatively minor offences, such as vagrancy, begging, petty theft or missing school. The vast majority of children in detention are pre-trial detainees, who are often held for long periods before their case is tried.
In many criminal justice systems, children are treated as adults. However, children do not have the emotional or intellectual maturity to take part in a judicial process designed for adults, making a fair trial impossible. Although international standards are clear that detaining a child should be only a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time, children are often given long custodial sentences.
The best response to children in contact with the law is a child-friendly justice system, which:
- promotes the well-being of the child
- reacts proportionately to the alleged offence
- takes into account a child’s individual characteristics
- focuses on lasting rehabilitation
- uses detention only as the last resort.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility should be set as high as possible. For children over this age, there should be a separate age-appropriate system, which takes into account their emotional, mental and intellectual maturity.
Given the substantial and often irreversible effects of imprisonment, a child-friendly justice system is in the interest of both children in contact with the law and of society.