Behind bars, beyond justice: An untold story of children in conflict with the law
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Behind bars, beyond justice: An untold story of children in conflict with the law

UNICEF/HQ05-1934/ ROGER LEMOYNEAmid important strides in global efforts to ensure a protective environment for the youngest members of society, an alarming number of children in many parts of the world are held in detention without sufficient cause, often for offences that are not considered criminal when committed by adults.

The Story
"No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. - So states the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the seven core treaties forming the international human rights framework. But, according to UNICEF, an alarming number of children around the world are being deprived of their liberty, held in detention without sufficient cause. Similarly, while the Convention stresses that imprisonment of a child shall be used "only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time,¡± many children have been rounded up simply for being a nuisance or perceived as a threat. Moreover, most of them have not been tried, and yet are being held for months, and in some cases years, often without access to legal aid. In some countries, the great majority of children coming into conflict with the law are from disadvantaged communities and are criminalized for simply trying to survive. Frequently, the children are held under deplorable and inhumane conditions. Physical abuse is common and children suffer deep trauma resulting from torture and interrogation. Child victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation are often re-victimized.

While the unanimous adoption of the child rights convention by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 gave a major impetus to worldwide efforts to protect children's rights and brought media spotlight on many of the underlying issues, UN experts are warning that a troubling development with serious implications for children's well-being has not received enough attention. To address this problem, UNICEF is working with a number of countries to bring juvenile justice systems in line with international standards and to safeguard the rights of children who come into contact with the law.

The Context

  • The term 'children in conflict with the law' refers to anyone under 18 who comes into contact with the justice system as a result of being suspected or accused of committing an offence. Most children in conflict with the law have committed petty crimes or such minor offences as vagrancy, truancy, begging or alcohol use. Some of these are known as 'status offences' and are not considered criminal when committed by adults.
  • UNICEF estimates indicate that more that 1 million children worldwide are living in detention as a result of being in conflict with the law.
  • The majority of children who end up in the criminal justice system are from particularly deprived communities and families, often from discriminated minorities.
  • Putting children in prison instead of seeking alternatives stigmatizes them as delinquents, robs them of opportunities for jobs and scholarships and exposes them to others who have committed more serious crimes. It also increases the likelihood of children breaking the law once again.
  • Are there alternatives to detention? Yes, says UNICEF, recommending a number of responses, including: Don't imprison children simply trying to survive; divert children who have committed minor crimes away from the criminal justice system; use detention only as a last resort; when children are imprisoned they should be kept separate from adults; governments should monitor the situation very closely, at a minimum having records of how many children are in jail and how long they have been there.

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF):
Karen Dukess, Tel: +1 212 303 7910, Email: