Protecting young offenders

April 19, 2010

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LAST Tuesday the Sindh High Court demanded an explanation from the concerned authorities about the unacceptable state of the juvenile offenders' Remand Home in Karachi.

The court also took a serious view of the government's failure to establish adequate reformatory institutions and detention centres for children who come into conflict with the law.

The lack of structural and institutional support for the implementation of juvenile justice laws is part of a wider problem in Pakistan. We may enact good laws but leave a great deal to be desired when it comes to their implementation.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Pakistan is under an obligation to develop a separate and distinct system of juvenile justice which recognises the lesser culpability of children and promotes their reintegration into society.

Over the years, successive governments have made half-hearted attempts to introduce laws aimed at protecting children during the various stages of the criminal justice system. These laws cover treatment at police stations, trials in specially constituted or exclusive courts and detention in modern reformatory centres to help them become responsible citizens.

From the Criminal Procedure Code 1898 and Reformatory Schools Act 1897 to the Sindh Children Act 1955 — and more recently the much-trumpeted Juvenile Justice Ordinance 2000 — there are ample provisions for safeguarding the rights of children, be they offenders or victims of crime.

However, most of these provisions remain limited to the statute books and no discernible effort has been made to create the institutions and facilities required for their implementation. Consequently, various agencies of the criminal justice system have been recklessly violating clearly laid down juvenile laws.

The Juvenile Justice Ordinance requires a policeman dealing with a juvenile offender to follow certain procedures. The juvenile must not be handcuffed or transported in a police vehicle carrying adult offenders and should not be placed in a lock-up housing adult detainees. A probation officer has to be informed at the time of arrest and an adult family member summoned.

Then there is the provision for facilitating legal aid and using discretion to bail out the child. At no point can the offender be maltreated and his privacy must be protected, so much so that he should be taken to juvenile court in a separate police car.

Most police officers are unaware of these requirements because of inadequate training and others cannot act due to resource constraints. In several police stations the investigation staff has no transport facilities whatsoever, let alone an exclusive car in which to transport juveniles. Generally a police station has only one lock-up and as such there is no way to segregate a child in custody.

In all of Sindh there are just three probation officers, so even if a police officer chooses to call them they are rarely available. There is only one youthful offenders' school in the entire province and just one, poorly maintained remand home for young offenders.

All children require due attention and care. As the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, the police interact with children that are offenders as well as those who are victims of crime and abuse. A responsible police officer is expected to treat suspected children with utmost care because there is every likelihood that they may be victims of circumstances beyond their control. It is unfair to treat them as adults or hardened criminals.

Police officers with a traditional mindset may look at the issue from an entirely different angle. Most police officers strive to control crime, apprehend criminals and get them punished. It is generally believed by police officers that harsher punishments and stricter laws will deter people from committing crimes. Therefore they apply the same methods to adult as well as young offenders.

A typical police officer may think that lenient treatment of juvenile offenders increases juvenile delinquency, and that only severe punishment can help curb crimes committed by the young. Certain prescribed procedures must be followed but a police official may believe that laws apply to all individuals regardless of their age. Owing to this thinking he sees no need to treat juveniles differently.

There are 1.2 million children on the streets of Pakistan. Given the conditions in which they grow up, it is unrealistic to expect them to behave responsibly. If they are caught breaking the law, punishment alone will not put them on the right path. They need to be given an opportunity to reform.

Many children who end up as offenders would not have become involved in criminal behaviour if their social conditions had been favourable. Disadvantaged young children who commit minor offences are often arrested, convicted and sentenced, and subsequently treated like adult criminals. Also, while going through the various stages of the criminal justice process they may be exposed to the adverse effects of the system.

It is the responsibility of the state to protect children and aid their development. The state has to create conditions where children are treated in a humane manner and are free from discrimination, injustice and cruelty. The state aside, parents, guardians, communities, civil society and the general public should also play their part.

The country's home departments, social welfare departments, police forces, prison authorities and the judiciary have an immense responsibility to create conditions congenial to juveniles. The authorities must give this task priority billing, allocate significant resources, raise awareness, and train police officers, prosecutors, judges and prison staff.

In addition, a system has to be devised to monitor the implementation of these measures. Last but not least, non-governmental organisations have a crucial role to play in liaising with the government to ensure that any gaps in implementation are duly filled.

The writer is a barrister and a DIG in the Sindh police.