By Jeslyn Tan, The New York Times
Our children need to be protected.
He curled up in the corner of the hall, cowering from the baton-wielding guard looming before him, and begged for mercy. Just 12 years of age, scrawny and weak, he pressed his palms against the back of his head as he tried to make himself look as small as possible. The guard slammed his baton against the ground in warning, and the boy flinched sharply.
The delegates of the Human Rights Council held their breath as the guard finally took a step back, and slowly let it escape as the boy gradually stopped shaking after a long pause.
This episode made one thing loud and clear to the delegates present – our juvenile justice systems have numerous inherent problems in them, and must be reformed immediately.
What exactly then, is the problem with the juvenile justice systems of today?
The inherent problem at hand lies with the lack of clear international standards that enshrine the basic rights of juveniles in contact with the law. There has yet to be international consensus on how to grant these juveniles a fair trial and post-trial process, and they face both heavy emotional duress and restricted access to legal support.
There is a disparity between what the judges are aware of and what the accused are aware of, leading to a situation where wrongly incarcerated juveniles will be left unable to fight back against unfair trials. This problem is further compounded by the fact that many juveniles are even more likely to be unaware of their rights as compared to those of legal age.
This problem is further compounded by the racial and economical discrepancy of the current incarcerated youth population. African-Americans are five times more likely to be confined than white youths, while Latinos or Native Americans are two times more likely to be confined than white youths. One third of total court cases involve African-American youths. It is easy to say that all trials are fair – it is difficult to prove it, however, when the numbers state otherwise.
Post-trial, there is speculation over the effectiveness of juvenile justice systems around the world in achieving its goal: to successfully rehabilitate juvenile delinquents and reintegrate them back into society. Current programmes in the US are centered more around strict punishment instead of positive rehabilitation, and overlaps with the “zero-tolerance policy” adopted by schools and politicians.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation conducted a recent study in 2011 and revealed a rising trend of recurring maltreatment of incarcerated juveniles, as well as how physical abuse and the excessive use of force by facility staff show no signs of abating. In contrast, steady increase of maltreatment revelations proves that large, conventional juvenile correctional facilities aimed at confining incarcerated youths for rehabilitation are prone to abuse. Not only are such prisons unable to make any headway in achieving their goal, they are also the breeding grounds for the abuse of our confined children.
There is a pressing need to address the way the juvenile justice system has failed our youths. Many scholars have stressed the importance of reforming juvenile justice systems to increase effectiveness and minimise discrimination.
Another possible aspect for reform is the removal of the zero-tolerance policy, as supported by James C. Howell, co-author of A Handbook for Evidence-Based Juvenile Justice Systems. He reiterates how such policies simply overwhelm the juvenile justice system with low risk offenders and should be eliminated.
Only the youths who actually pose a severe threat against national security should be confined – the lower number of youths incarcerated will allow for greater focus to be placed on these youths to more effectively rehabilitate them.
Laura L. Finley, author of Juvenile Justice, a book providing a thorough examination of the attitudes toward and approaches to juvenile justice in the US, also argues for earlier intervention in juvenile delinquency. She is a vocal advocate for the development of programmes that focus more on rehabilitation instead of punishment.
With stark evidence that the use of punishment and force is merely exploited as a method to push forth the power disparity between guard and child, perhaps more should indeed be done to research deeper into the possibility of shifting focus onto rehabilitation.
There is a need for the the juvenile justice system to be restructured to more effectively lower the chances of future crime amongst youth. To that end, increased educational programs for these incarcerated youth could be a vital method to reduce recidivism.
Increased education has been a tried and tested method to act as a stepping stone for certain youths to exit the slump of crime. This is a platform for youths to be more aware of the rights they possess, and how the law affects those rights. Armed with this knowledge, youths will be able to put up a fight against any future unfair trials pitted against them.
Education is also a means for better reintegration to society, allowing youths to seek out legal professions and stop resorting to crime. A 2015 report from The Council of State Governments Justice Center showed only 13 states provide incarcerated youth with the same educational services as the general student population in the United States – a clear problem that must be addressed.
The report strongly recommended that juvenile detention facilities should be held to the same academic standards as other public schools to facilitate the education of incarcerated youth and prepare them for their future reintegration into society as capable contributors.
The establishment of smaller, more humane and rehabilitation-based detention centers for the small number of youth who are incarcerated can also greatly reduce the risk of maltreatment of confined juveniles.
The study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation goes on to showcase how rehabilitation centers of a smaller scale have proven to be safer. In detention facilities of 100 or more youth, sexual victimization rates are up to three times higher than they are in facilities with a capacity cap of just 25 youth. This applies to only one of the mainly abuse directed at incarcerated juveniles, and is a clear demonstration of how smaller detention centers are an important step to protecting the rights of our youths.
It is vital for the world to view this as a pressing issue that needs to be solved as soon as possible. Regardless of whatever crime they have committed, the basic rights of incarcerated youths in detention centers must still be respected and upheld, and it is critical that their safety in such detention centers are not compromised, nor are they given unfair trials and subject to emotional duress.
As the delegate of Australia mentioned during the conference, there is a need for guards to draw the line between treatment of children and adults. Better training, better screening and better international standards will be required to act as the guidelines for guards in these detention centers. No guard should be leveraging his power over youths, or punishing them for simple misbehaviours with the threat of excess physical force.
The Bolivian child quivering on the floor, youths being forced to spend 358 hours (the average duration of time spent) in solitary confinement, children being hogtied by staff in an attempt to enforce “good” behaviour – how are any of these justified? Why do we continue to tolerate these sights?
As the Bolivian child asked the delegate of his home country, “What are you doing for me? You sit here, with your expensive computer, your notes, your fancy clothes, and what are you doing? I want someone to help me. Please, help me. I don’t want to be hit anymore.”
Indeed, our children need to be shielded against infringement of their basic rights, especially when they are going up against the law.