Director General/Executive Director
Opinion Piece ( Neue Zircher Zeitung)
Children are the future, but let's remember they are someone today
There are thought to be over a million young people in detention globally. These are the 21st Century's invisible children. Let's bring their situation into plain sight and work to end the over-reliance on depriving them of their liberty.
Nearly thirteen years have passed since the Millennium Declaration boldly stated, "As leaders we have a duty…to …the children of the world, to whom the future belongs." Concerning the detention of young people, we need to ask ourselves a tough question: are we perhaps emphasising the future of children, while forgetting about their young lives today.
The profile of a child in detention is very different from our idea of who they are. Rather than a young violent, recidivist, the majority of the children in the world's prison systems are first time offenders, charged with petty crimes and awaiting trial. These children can have mental health issues, others confront substance abuse problems; some have been trying to survive on the streets. All need our care, protection and support.
Children in custody and detention are acutely vulnerable to violence. Sometimes these attacks and abuse come from staff; at other times, it is the result of adults who share the same institutions. or it is perpetrated by children against children. Such acts are formative moments in the lives of the young; experiences that only increase the likelihood of later acts of criminality. The result is a violent cycle that only creates more destructive behaviour.
While the simplistic and spontaneous response might be to blame criminal justice systems, the reality is quite the reverse. Criminal justice systems, founded on the rule of law and human-rights, are a corrective to the problem of children in detention. The remedy lies in changing what we do with these mostly first-time offenders when they appear in criminal courts or even before.
"Rule breaking," and petty crime, can often be a rite of passage for some adolescents. It does not, for the most part, follow them into adulthood. Studies in the US show that the best responses may be community-and-diversion-based. It is a message that needs to be embraced around the world.
The studies also suggest that the most effective means of reducing repeat offending is not within the four walls of a detention centre, but outside in the child's own community. Such programmes show a reduction in recidivism of up to 22 per cent. Those focused on child and family therapy are also shown to be more cost-effective than detention saving US$13 for every US$1 spent.
My Office, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, is working closely with its partners to help Member States create fair, effective and efficient criminal justice systems for children. Systems that can be a source of protection. Our activities are founded on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and UNODC is the guardian of international standards, which help define the duties of Member States. However, we also recognize that success cannot be achieved without the assistance of civil society, the public, as well as the media.
Globally there are thought to be around one million children in detention. These children need to be made visible through hard data, analysis, and information. Change can only properly come when we have a detailed picture of what happens when children come face-to-face with their country's criminal justice system.
Too often, criminal justice systems have served as a sword by sending children into detention, but they can be a powerful shield by re-directing them to community-based programmes. For a long time, we have used the sword and spurned the shield. In doing so, children have been denied both their present and future lives. This must change. We need to adopt community-based approaches that recognise children as someone today, while giving them a chance of tomorrow.