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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Children’s Rights Alliance for England

What is it about children that have come into conflict with the law that seemingly makes them so different to other children when it comes to protecting their human rights? Vilification and public shame are somehow acceptable when children are deemed “bad”. Yet the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the UK became a party in 1991 gives additional rights to children in conflict with the law, to protect their privacy and best interests, and to promote their right to a fair trial – recognising their particular vulnerability when coming into contact with the criminal justice system. These children are often facing serious and multiple challenges in their lives, and may well have already been failed by adults and public agencies. Our obligations under international human rights law require that we give these children, like all other children, the support and help they need to achieve positive rehabilitation and develop to their full potential.

International human rights bodies, including the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, have regularly and severely criticised the UK for its treatment of children in conflict with the law. With one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world; more children being criminalised at an early age as a result of anti-social behaviour legislation; high representation of children in stop and search figures; the over-use of remand; the trial and sentencing of children in adult courts; serious concerns from inspectors about squalid and unsafe conditions in custody; concerns about the quality and continuity of education and training for children who are locked up; poor provision for physical and mental health in custodial settings; strip-searching and painful restraint techniques authorised in child prisons; and 30 child deaths in custody since 1990, it is clearly evident to anyone who cares to look that our juvenile justice system is completely at odds with human rights principles. The best interests of children are regularly coming in second to political considerations. Perceptions of high levels of child criminality fuelled by a predominantly negative media and conflicting government messages about children do not help.

A radical overhaul of the juvenile justice system is urgently needed. In fact, it is long overdue. Legislation, policies, practices and child custodial settings must be designed and developed based on the framework of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments. This would require establishing the principle in domestic law that custody should only ever be used as a measure of last resort, and always for the shortest possible period of time. It would require the removal of “punishment” from the statutory purposes of sentencing children and the introduction of a renewed focus on rehabilitation. It would require child custodial settings to be child-centred and non-punitive in culture, and to provide mainstream and high quality education or training for children. It would require that children’s own views and experiences are actively sought, responded to and taken into account in relation to all aspects of their lives. And most importantly, it would require the recognition that children in conflict with the law are children first, and as such their best interests must always be a primary consideration in all decisions affecting them. Only by taking this approach can we fulfil our legal and moral obligations to children and serve the interests of wider society by providing conditions in which they have a chance to thrive.

Children’s Rights Alliance for England

About the Children’s Rights Alliance for England
The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) seeks the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in England. Our vision is of a society where the human rights of all children are recognised and realised. CRAE protects the human rights of children by lobbying government and others who hold power, by bringing or supporting test cases and by using regional and international human rights mechanisms. We provide free legal information and advice, raise awareness of children’s human rights, and undertake research about children’s access to their rights. We mobilise others, including children and young people, to take action to promote and protect children's human rights. Each year we publish a review of the state of children's rights in England.

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