Forgetting That They Are Children Because of their despondency, poverty and low social status, street children, children of slums and other disempowered children are often in conflict with the law. Due to the relative powerlessness of their parents and/or guardians, these children don’t receive protection from the law, and are prone to arrest and incarceration. Because of a fragmented NGO response, weak institutions, poor governance and a lack of legal protection, children in prison cannot access independent legal counsel. Due to their weakness, children are unable to access their rights. Because of inadequate resources and a lack of training, law enforcement agencies and the prison/corrective staff are not able to work within a context of child rights or understand age-appropriate responses within the juvenile justice system.
Law reform has been neglected and legislation concerning children is antiquated. Who are children? According to the CRC, children are persons under 18. In Bangladesh legislation, children are defined according to various laws. The Children Act 1974 defines them as under 16 years, while in Nari O Shisu Nirjaton Damon Ain, 2000 and the National Child Policy it is 14 years. The Penal Code of 1860 recently laid down a minimum age of criminal responsibility for children of 9 years (previously 7 years), one of the youngest in the world.
Logic would suggest that children held within the criminal justice system should be among the most visible children of all, readily accessible to interventions that ensure their access to health care, education and protection. But often children in conflict with the law effectively cease to be regarded as children. Instead, their perceived transgression is considered to remove them from childhood protection, exposing them to treatment either in exactly the same way as adult offenders or, worse, to having their vulnerability as children abused.
Governments have a clear responsibility to protect children in detention from abuse and harm. But they must also question whether a child should be in detention at all. Detention should always be a last resort: In many cases it is too readily adopted as an immediate response to antisocial or disruptive behaviour by children and adolescents, as if removing them out of sight and out of mind is a goal in itself, rather than an unintended consequence.
Juveniles tried at adult courts are more likely to return to crime than those tried in a juvenile system. Yet teenagers continue to be tried in adult courts, and to be given long sentences in adult jails that do not have the staff or infrastructure to deal with the different needs of teenagers – in contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Serious emotional difficulties are common amongst teenagers who are sent to prison. They experience significant decline in their physical health, making their successful reintegration back into society even more difficult and unlikely. Teenagers suffer inhumane conditions in detention – overcrowding, cold, inadequate food, lice-ridden and insufficient beds, poor sanitation facilities and no exercise. As a result they develop skin disorders, chronic diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses and dental decay. They may be kept in solitary confinement for long periods. Physical abuse and violent interrogation at arrest or during detention cause broken bones, broken eardrums and bruises. Young people are often exposed the risk of sexual abuse in prison, particularly when they are locked up with adults. Parents are commonly denied visitation rights and are often not informed of a child's whereabouts. The death penalty is still applied to juvenile offenders. Children lose out on their education, which also increases the likelihood of a return to crime once they are out.