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Review: UNICEF report highlights the lack of uniform Data about ‘Children in Conflict with Law’

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Recently, UNICEF released two reports which analysed the situation of children in conflict with the law. One of the reports looks into the record-keeping and undeveloped administrative data systems in many countries about children in conflict with the law. The second report looks into the responses of governments to UNICEF’s call for the release of detained children who were at a higher risk of contracting the virus, during the pandemic. Here is a review. 

Children in conflict with the law are those aged below 18 years who have been accused of or recognized as having committed a criminal offence. These children are often held in police custody, prisons, or even detention centres which is a violation of international treaties, norms, and standards. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which defines the rights of the child is the first international agreement dealing with comprehensive protection of children’s rights. It asserts that children may be detained or imprisoned only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate length of time. The Convention also holds that children have the right to be treated such that their sense of dignity and worth is not affected. The treatment should be aimed at rehabilitating the children and reintegrating them into society. This is because more often than not, children who break the law do so as a result of restricted opportunities available for their development. Furthermore, those children who get into conflict with the law are often the victims of poor parenting, abuse and neglect, and social and economic difficulties, as per a UNICEF document. 

UNICEF released two reports analysing the situation of children in detention

Recently, on the opening day of the World Congress on Justice with ChildrenUNICEF released two reports which analysed the situation of such children. One is the report titled ‘Estimating the number of children deprived of their liberty in the administration of justice’, which is the first such analysis since 2007 that looks into the record-keeping and undeveloped administrative data systems in many countries. The second report, Detention of children in the time of COVID-19 , looks into the responses of governments to UNICEF’s call for the release of detained children who were at a higher risk of contracting the virus, during the pandemic. 

Accurate data on the number, characteristics, and well-being of children in detention is largely unavailable

According to the ‘Estimating the number of children deprived of liberty in the administration of justice’ report, accurate statistics on the number, characteristics, and well-being of children in detention is unknown due to incomplete record-keeping and undeveloped administrative data systems in many countries. Problems such as inconsistencies in data collection methods and in the data’s accuracy, completeness and coverage across countries further make the quality of available data poor. Proper administrative records of the data on children under police detention, pre-trial detention, and custodial detention will be useful for research, monitoring and evaluation of programs and interventions which can help in improving the services for such children. 

To come up with the estimates for this study, data on the absolute number of children under age 18 detained in pre-trial, pre-sentencing or post-sentencing in any type of facility, including police custody, on a particular date, as reflected in national administrative data systems were compiled from January 2017 to October 2021 through web research and country-level solicitation.

38 countries did not have official figures or restricted external access to the figures

A total of 202 countries that covered 100% of the population were considered to get the information on data availability. Of these, 38 countries, 16 of which were in East Asia and the Pacific, either did not have official figures or restricted external access to the figures. For the remaining 164 countries, figures were available. Only the data for 159 countries, covering 87% of the global population of children aged 0 to 17, met the criteria for inclusion in the database. However, there was significant variation in the kind of data available. For instance, only 71 countries had sex-disaggregated figures and only one-half of them had data as recent as 2019 and 2020.

Further, the age range covered by each country is also different. Of the 156 countries, 76 countries did not have a lower bound for the age of children whereas the remaining 83 countries specified an age range. 14-17 years was the most common age range which was used in 22 countries. 

Only seven countries produced the figures for children in police detention, pre-trial detention, and custodial detention

The study also noted that of the 159 countries with data that met the inclusion criteria, only 59 countries provided figures for children in detention as a result of being in conflict with the law but did not include a description of the detention setting. While UNICEF recommends that the data be provided for police detention, pre-trial detention, and custodial detention, only 51 countries provided figures for children in prisons, penal institutions, or correctional institutions while 30 countries provided figures for children in pre-trial and post-trial detention. Just seven countries produced the figures for children in all three settings.

NCRB reports have some data on juveniles in conflict with the law

In India, as per the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (JJ Act), “child in conflict with law” (CCL) means a child who is alleged or found to have committed an offence and who has not completed eighteen years of age on the date of commission of such offence. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s annual Crime in India publication covers the data on Juveniles in Conflict with Law in the country, which is based on the police recorded FIR. 

Data pertaining to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) related crimes and Special & Local Laws (SLL) related crimes committed by children in each State/UT, and in major cities is provided in the report. Further, crime-head wise, age-group and gender-wise data on juveniles apprehended in each state and major cities are also provided along with the education and family background of the arrested juveniles. Further, the data on the number of 16 to 18-year-old prison inmates including convicts, undertrials, and detenues is available in NCRB’s Prison Statistics India report. However, the data isn’t adequate to understand the exact condition of children in detention in the country. 

2.61 Lakh children were in detention globally on any day in 2020

Based on the available data, UNICEF has estimated that 2,61,200 children were in detention globally on any day in 2020 which translates to 29 children being detained per lakh children population. The estimated number of children detained ranges from 8,100 in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and in West and Central Africa to 50,300 in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, the rate of children in detention per lakh population varied from 8 in West and Central Africa to 137 in North America. Only three regions- West and Central Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa had a rate less than the global average. 

Lack of data is a major bottleneck 

Despite the existence of conventions and norms, children in detention, in general, lack access to nutrition, healthcare, and hygiene services, and denied access to lawyers and family care, and are unable to challenge the legality of their detention. These have a devastating impact on their physical and mental health. Without the availability of the actual number of children in conflict with the law, it is difficult to understand the extent and scale of the problem. The report highlights the huge disparity in the kind of data available across the globe. The lack of reliable and uniform data on children who interact with the justice system makes it impossible to know if children are being denied their rights. To extend protection to children and assess if the decisions by law enforcement and courts are being made in the best interests of the child, improving the availability, quality and use of administrative data on justice for children is a must. The report calls on every country to work on this. 

During the pandemic, 84 countries reported the release of detained children

The report on ‘Detention of children in the time of COVID-19’ revealed that more than 45,000 children across 54 countries were released from detention and safely returned to the family or an appropriate alternative since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While only 54 countries provided specific data on the number of children released, 84 countries reported the release of detained children following the UNICEF’s call to release the children noting their increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in confined and overcrowded spaces.

Featured Image: Children in Conflict with Law

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