By Holly Hobart, Senior Program Director
Looking back on our childhoods, many of us laugh about the mistakes we made and tell stories about the trouble we stirred up. We were only kids, after all. We were learning to navigate the world, grapple with peer pressure, and understand right from wrong. Unfortunately, for the more than 1 million children who are behind bars globally, things are not so simple.
When a child comes in contact with the criminal justice system, a child-friendly process should automatically be triggered. Kids are more physically, mentally and emotionally vulnerable than adults, and they need special care to address and prevent further trauma and encourage rehabilitation. Yet around the world, justice systems are still struggling to provide kids with the services and attention they need.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989. It confirmed the rights of children including the right to freedom, protection from violence, and health care--and has prompted many countries to enact their own legislation meant to enforce, sometimes even expand on these protections for children. Earlier this year, we gathered experts to discuss what protecting children looks like in criminal justice systems around the world--and the progress we’ve seen, like the passage of Myanmar’s new Child Rights Law in June 2019. The new law raises the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 10 years, discourages the detention of children and calls for alternatives to incarceration. While the law is not yet in line with international standards, it is a positive step toward protecting children.
But words on a page can only do so much to protect children.
Defense lawyers bridge the gap between the written law and realization of the protections enshrined within it, both in the community and the courtroom. Lawyers are the first line of defense to protect the rights of kids who have been arrested or detained. They are the ones who can fight for their clients and hold, police, lawyers and even judges accountable to following the letter of the law.
That’s why we work with partners around the world to ensure we can reach children at the earliest possible moment after arrest. In Myanmar, we’ve joined forces with UNICEF. Through this project, funded by the European Union, we are cooperating to protect the rights of children in conflict with the law and support the implementation of Myanmar’s Child Rights Law, including:
Fighting for pretrial release of children and diversion from the criminal justice system: Children belong at home with their families, not in a cell. Although the practice is condemned by the Child Rights Law, detaining children ahead of trial is common practice in Myanmar. Further, the Child Rights Law introduced new requirements to, whenever possible, divert children out of the criminal justice system entirely, but the capacity of the system to fairly and effectively implement this positive measure is lacking, as there is little understanding of the psycho-social needs of children in conflict with the law, few programs or services to address them, and no effective coordination amongst stakeholders. Case by case, we are litigating and advocating to shift police and court practices to properly assess why kids come into contact with the system. We are also setting up resource networks to help keep kids out of detention.
Pushing for expert witnesses: Expert witnesses are critical to providing a quality defense. In juvenile cases, experts can testify on brain development and a child’s ability to understand right from wrong. Currently in Myanmar however, judges often deny defense lawyers’ requests to call expert witnesses. Our lawyers are strategizing new ways to get expert witnesses into the courtroom to testify on behalf of their clients and educate stakeholders on adolescent development.
Advocating for alternatives to incarceration: Study after study has shown that incarceration fosters violence, trauma, and often leads to future contact with the criminal justice system. The consequences are even greater for children as they are still in the early stages of physical, mental, and emotional development. Myanmar calls its juvenile detention facilities “training schools,” but they are, in effect, prisons for children. Confining kids and separating them from their families and communities has a damaging and lasting impact. We are working with UNICEF and other partners to identify productive alternatives to incarceration that keep kids in their communities and get them the support they need.
Training other justice sector actors: As we’ve seen through our work in other countries, our case-by-case advocacy for new approaches to justice for children helps shift attitudes in police stations and courtrooms. We also hold specialized trainings on juvenile justice for Bar Association members, police, prosecutors, and other legal professionals so we can all move forward together to support kids.
Justice reform does not happen overnight. Legislative efforts like Myanmar’s Child Rights Law are a step in the right direction however, and we must use this momentum to continue to shift the way the justice system engages with children. When children are supported, happy and healthy, the future is brighter for all of us.