What is juvenile justice?
The term “juvenile justice” refers to legislation, norms and standards, procedures, mechanisms and provision, institutions and bodies specifically applicable to juvenile offenders.
However, juvenile justice can be thought of more broadly to include efforts to address the root causes which bring children in conflict with the law, develop methods for prevention, and explore strategies for rehabilitation and reinsertion.
Why Juvenile Justice?
There are at least 1 million children in the world behind bars – often in conditions which constitute inhumane or degrading treatment.
Most of the children behind bars do not belong there. The majority are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime. Many are detained for behaviours which would not be considered crimes when committed by adults – such as begging, loitering or living on the street – and very few children behind bars have been accused or convicted of a violent crime.
Children’s rights in juvenile justice
Children in conflict with the law have rights which must be respected.
According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC):
“States Parties recognize the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child’s respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of other and which takes into account the child’s age and the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society” (article 40.1)
The CRC emphasises that children should be diverted away from judicial proceedings whenever possible and redirected to community support services. The formal justice system should only deal with the small minority of children who have committed very serious crimes and represent a threat to society, and the detention of children should always be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time (article 37).
In addition to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there are a number of international norms and standards outlining the specific rights of children in juvenile justice including:
- General Comment No.10: Children’s Rights in Juvenile Justice
- UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty
- UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice
- UN Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency
These international standards call on governments to ensure that children in conflict with the law are treated with dignity and respect, in recognition of their level of development, and in ways which privilege re-education and rehabilitation rather than repression and punitive sanctions.
Despite these international standards however, the reality is that the majority of children in conflict with the law still end up in the formal criminal justice system.