The age at which children and teenagers can be held criminally responsible varies widely across the world, ranging from as low as seven in Yemen. for example, and up to 18 years. Children above the age of criminal responsibility can be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned.
In 2016, several countries lowered the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR), despite recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that this should be no lower than 12 and that it should be raised progressively to 18. A 2017 study by UNICEF found that in 13 of 26 East Asia and Pacific countries reviewed, the MACR was set below the internationally accepted minimum age of 12 years.
Over one million under-18s are deprived of their liberty worldwide, according to UNICEF estimates. Many are detained alongside adults. The UNODC reported that between 2011–13, the rate of children in prison was 10 per 100,000 children.
Children continue to be tried in adult or even military courts in contravention of international law. For example, in New Zealand, certain offences such as murder, rape and aggravated assault will still be heard before an adult court, despite the increase of the youth justice age to 17.
Many countries criminalise ‘status offences’ – behaviour that would not be a criminal offence if committed by an adult – including truancy, violating curfew laws, or possessing alcohol or tobacco. There is also often a blurring of the boundaries between children who commit offences and children who are in need of protection. Those living on the street, those with mental illnesses and child sex workers often find themselves criminalised, for example.
Children who are arrested and held in detention are often subject to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation at the hands of police, fellow detainees and staff in detention facilities. Abuse frequently goes unreported, the perpetrators are not held accountable, and the issue is rarely a priority for policy-makers.
Fair and effective child-friendly criminal justice systems rely on trained and specialist staff. However, in many countries professionals are not properly qualified to deal with the special needs of child suspects, defendants or witnesses.
There is often a lack of effective independent oversight of detention facilities, including those for children. Independent monitoring helps to prevent violence and abuse, protect staff from unfounded criticism, and enables children to exercise their rights.
Children whose parents are detained or imprisoned are an invisible and often highly vulnerable group whose rights and welfare can be seriously affected at every stage of criminal proceedings against their parent. It is estimated that millions of children worldwide have a parent in prison. Tens of thousands are living in prison with a parent, most often their mother, and many times they are separated from their parent. The rights of these children remain largely unacknowledged within criminal justice systems, and their interests are not considered by the court when passing sentence on parents.