The Worst Place in the World for a Child

A Thai princess, an Austrian Minister and a panel of United Nations officials and experts today led a discussion at the UN on a subject that deserves far more attention that it gets: the imprisonment of children and the violent abuse too many experience once there.

Photo: UN Photo/Martine Perret

The figures are startling. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than a million children are being held in prison at any one time, although the real figure is likely to be far higher given gaps in data. And while the phenomenon is global, the U.S., with an estimated 60,000 under-18-year-olds behind bars, leads the way, imprisoning far more children than any other developed country.

Worldwide, over half of all imprisoned children are being held without trial, most accused of only petty crimes, some held simply for skipping school, begging, drinking alcohol or being a "nuisance". Very few have access to adequate health, education and counselling services, and an alarming number spend at least some time every day in solitary confinement. Physical and psychological abuse is commonplace -- whether at the hands of police, adult detainees or peers.

Of course, children shouldn't be in prison in the first place. They shouldn't be kept in closed institutions, deprived of care, love and nurture. They should be in school and in safe home environments.

And while all justice systems must address the situation of children who break the law a policy that emphasizes criminal penalties and imprisonment as the primary response to juvenile law breaking is simply the wrong approach.

It is also demonstrably counter-productive: not only do most imprisoned children re-offend once released but they are also far more likely to end up back in prison as adults compared with juvenile offenders given non-custodial sentences.

And if these arguments aren't enough, there's the exorbitant cost. In the U.S., for example, the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates the cost of imprisoning a child to be about $88,000 a year -- up to 10 times higher than the cost of alternative, non-custodial sentences.

But the real price is human, not financial. Children in custody suffer anxiety, depression and feelings of hopelessness -- especially if they are sent far away from their families or community environment. And exposure to violence while in custody adds enormously to these problems -- often leading to severe physical injury and psychological trauma, even death.

In short, prison really is the worst place in the world to put a child. Which is why, as a response to juvenile criminality, it should only ever be considered a response of absolute last resort.

At the UN, pressure for change is growing. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Office worked together with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Violence against Children and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to prepare a landmark report to the UN Human Rights Council on preventing and responding to violence against children in the juvenile justice system.

The report sets out the risks of violence to which children are exposed within the juvenile justice system, and recommends measures that governments can take to prevent and respond to incidents of violence. These include:

  • Preventive measures to reduce the number of children who come into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place -- including abolishing so-called "status" offenses such as begging, consuming alcohol and loitering;

  • Treating imprisonment as a measure of last resort by making more use of diversion and alternative non-custodial sentences, including home-based monitoring, electronic tagging and community service; and
  • Making sure that all children who come into contact with the criminal justice system have access to legal assistance, counseling and child-sensitive complaints mechanisms at every stage.
  • Building on these findings, the UN General Assembly agreed a resolution asking UN agencies to produce a comprehensive, in-depth global study on children deprived of liberty, with a view to plugging remaining data gaps, sharing good practices from different regions, and providing a further impetus for action.

    As ever, the problem isn't working out what needs to be done but how to make it happen.

    To this end, UN officials today presented a set of Model Strategies aimed at encouraging countries to move from discussion of reforms to implementation. The Model Strategies, several years in the making, include the panoply of practical measures that governments are being encouraged to adopt, and that UNICEF, the UN Human Rights Office and others are ready to support on the ground.

    Much now depends on how far governments are prepared to go to change laws and policies, and how far change can be extended into criminal justice systems in countries around the world.

    Over to the grown-ups.