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State of Children in Juvenile Justice System and the need to protect their childhood

Vivien Stern*

An important event took place in Geneva a few days back. Representatives of States and civil society met for the Second World Congress on Juvenile Justice. Their agenda was clear: How to improve what happens to children and adolescents when they come into contact with the criminal law, when they are arrested by the police, charged with a crime, and punished, sometimes by losing their liberty?

The focus of the Congress is very welcome. Children in the hidden world of juvenile justice rarely come to public notice. The prisons, homes and reformatories where children are held are usually closed, secretive places and the children in them are often forgotten by society. This is despite the fact that the 2006 United Nations Study on Violence Against Children found that children in care and justice institutions might be at a higher risk of violence than children in many other environments.

Violence in institutions for children does sometimes make headlines. Ashley Smith from Canada has been at that point[1]. She was first arrested at the age of 15 for throwing crab apples at a mailman. She was sent to a closed institution for children, where she was very disruptive towards staff and regularly injured herself. She was taken to court on several occasions because of her behaviour and punished with more time spent in custody. When she reached the age of 18, she was still locked up, and was transferred to the custody of the Correctional Service of Canada. It is the federal prison system, which holds adults serving over two years in prison.

Within a year, Ashley was transferred between various prisons 17 times. She was held in continuous segregation, where she continued to harm herself and was difficult towards staff. Force was regularly used by the staff to control her. She made several suicide attempts too. Psychologists advised that her suicidal behaviour was an ‘attention seeking behaviour’ and that she should not be ‘rewarded’ for this. On that basis, senior prison management ordered staff that if they observed Ashley trying to kill herself, they were not to intervene.

On 19 October 2007, Ashley Smith strangled herself to death with a strip of cloth while staff watched her from outside her cell. Almost an hour elapsed before they realised that she was actually dead. There was inquiry about her death. The hearings went on for a year. The jury issued its verdict in December 2013. The verdict was homicide.

A 79-page report by the US federal government[2] attracted attention late last year. It talked about the facilities where adolescents are held at Rikers Island in New York City. The report described ‘a deep-seated culture of violence’. Some of this violence was inflicted by the staff and some by other prisoners. Injuries suffered by the adolescents held there included broken jaws, broken noses, long bone fractures and lacerations.

In 2013, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited juvenile prisons in Turkey and heard reports of violence by prisoners on others and ‘deliberate physical ill-treatment’ by prison staff. In prisons in Latin America, violence is endemic and several murders are reported every week. Last year, five prisoners aged under 18 were killed by members of a rival gang in a prison in Honduras. The chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, reporting on a prison block holding boys aged 15-18, commented on the high levels of ‘unpredictable and reckless’ violence.

Violence can also occur in police stations where children are taken after being arrested. A study carried out in Tanzania showed that children arrested and held by the police were frequently beaten to try and get them to confess to a crime. Corporal punishment[3] in penal institutions is still lawful in around 80 countries.

Who are these children who end up in the world’s penal institutions? I have visited children’s prisons and reformatories in many parts of the world. Even when the staff is skilled and caring, and the buildings are colourful and welcoming, children’s prisons are still sad places. In them, you cannot see a cross-section of society. All you see are children from the poorest homes or from orphanages, and children who suffer from a range of untreated health conditions. Some are seen as a social threat and are taken into custody for begging, truanting from school or being homeless and living on the street. Children from minorities that face discrimination in society are more likely to be in these places of detention.

In Australia, as per the Law Council[4], Aboriginal children are twenty-four times more likely to be in juvenile prisons than non-indigenous children.

Most of those who lose their liberty are boys. Girls face special difficulties in detention, as the story of Ashley Smith shows. The number of girls in children’s prisons is small. So rather than creating specialist facilities, girls aged below 18 are often held in prisons with adults, sometimes very far from their homes.

UNICEF[5] estimates suggest that at least one million children are imprisoned worldwide, though the number may very well be higher. Detained children can be held at a variety of places, some of which are very risky. Some stay in crowded police stations for a long time after they have been arrested. Some are held in adult prisons to wait for their trial, where the risks of sexual and other abuses are high.

What needs to be done to protect children from the widespread violence of the justice system? As Paulo Sergio Pinheiro[6] said in his introduction to his seminal 2006 report for the United Nations General Assembly, ‘If Governments are committed to ensuring safety, it is clear that this is not going to be achieved by locking up adolescents under appalling conditions, by condoning the use of violence by agents of the State, or by weakening civil and political rights.’

Since 2006, organisations all over the world have worked with determination to change the way children in detention are treated. They are striving to reduce the number of those who are imprisoned. Loss of liberty should be the last resort. For those few children who need to be detained, they are persuading governments to set up small units that are run ‘in the best interests of the child’ as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requires. They are establishing inspection and oversight mechanisms so that violence cannot be hidden away and children’s voices don’t go unheard.

Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Violence Against Children, and a member of the Steering Committee of Know Violence in Childhood, reminds us about the rights of children to be protected.

Speaking at Expert Consultation on the prevention of and responses to violence against children within the juvenile justice system, held in January 2012 in Vienna[7] – to formulate and accelerate the adoption of effective measures to protect children within the juvenile justice system against all forms of violence, Ms. Pais said, ‘Juvenile justice is a core dimension of the rights of the child and a pivotal area where States’ commitment to children’s rights can be best expressed. We have a unique opportunity to promote a paradigm shift and help the criminal justice system evolve from an adult universe where children and adolescents hardly belong and where violence remains a high risk into an environment where children are seen as rights holders and are protected from all forms of violence at all times.’

The levels of violence that children face in places of detention are addressed firmly on the agenda of Know Violence in Childhood. We shall be working with the many dedicated organisations that are active in this field to make Marta Santos Pais’ ambition, for a juvenile justice system that provides justice to the children subject to it, a beautiful reality.

*Baroness Vivien Helen Stern was appointed as an independent member of the House of Lords, the upper House of the British parliament, in 1999, after a career in criminal justice reform and human rights. She also serves as the Global Co-Chair for Know Violence in Childhood: A Global Learning Initiative.


1. Liberals call for Ashley Smith prison-death public inquiry. CBC News, 8 November 2012

2. US Department of Justice(2014) CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Currection Jails on Rinkers Island. New York: USDoJ

3. “All you want to know about Corporal Punishment“. From UNICEF website, accessed at 29 January 2015.

4. “Law Council says Indigenous imprisonment is a national crisis“. Media release from Law Council of Australia, 27 November 2014.

5. “Children in contact with the law“. From UNICEF website, accessed at 29 January 2015.

6. Pineiro, P. S. (2006). World Report on Violence Against Children. Geneva: United Nations

7. “High-level Panel Discussion on Prevention of and responses to violence against children within the juvenile justice system“. From the website of Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, accessed at 29 January, 2015.



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