While detention should be used as a last resort and for the shortest period of time, children suspected or accused of having committed an offence are often detained. Children are also detained for various reasons: because they were accompanying a parent to detention or seeking asylum in another country; for vagrancy, begging, missing school; for reasons such as after being removed from an abusive home situation; or for reasons such as race, religion, nationality, ethnicity or political views. UNICEF estimates that more than one million children worldwide are deprived of their liberty by law enforcement officials (UNICEF, Progress for children, 2009).
Many justice systems do not have child-sensitive procedures due to lack of resources or political will and those services for a child’s development may not be available to promote the child’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society. In detention, children may suffer violations of their rights - they may be detained with adult prisoners – and are exposed to torture, physical and emotional abuse. Legal, social, cultural norms, as well as practical constraints may complicate issues of justice for children.
Justice for children is designed for the benefit of all children in contact with the justice system to ensure that the children are better served and protected (SG GN J4C 2008). UNICEF promotes the strengthening of all parts of the child protection system, including the justice mechanisms, to operate in the best interest of the child. UNICEF promotes alternatives to detention, such as diversion, as well as restorative justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. UNICEF supports the training of police, prosecutors, judges, lawyers, social services and health professionals to effectively protect children in contact with the justice system. UNICEF works with the traditional or customary justice mechanisms, of which current estimates indicate that in many developing countries, handle 80 per cent of the total caseload. UNICEF encourages the establishment of child sensitive courts and police procedures that give primary consideration to a child’s right to protection and are consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other non-binding international standards, guidelines, and rules.