As a global, weeklong virtual conference on children’s justice got underway Monday, one of the world’s best-known social welfare organizations, UNICEF, released two reports to make the case for nations to stop incarcerating children.
UNICEF, or the United Nations Children’s Fund, timed the releases to coincide with the 2021 World Congress on Justice With Children — Nov. 15 through 20 — which aims to accelerate progress toward nondiscriminatory child justice systems and access to justice for all children.
Other goals include forging partnerships and action plans for the next three years to map out specific regional plans within an overarching global strategy. They also include collecting national pledges to reinforce child-friendly policies and practices in the justice system and beginning to tackle issues and ideas that arise at the virtual conference. The congress will amplify the voices of youth with experience in the justice systems of the world.
One UNICEF report, “Detention of children in the time of COVID,” notes that about 45,000 children from at least 84 countries were safely released from detention and returned to their family or another appropriate alternative because of fear heightened vulnerability to COVID-19 in crowded facilities that were ill-equipped to protect them.
“By protecting children from conditions that could have exposed them to grave illness, these countries were able to overcome public resistance and spur innovative, age-appropriate justice solutions,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “This has proved something we already knew – child friendly justice solutions are more than possible.”
In a second report, UNICEF attempted to nail down definitively how many children are locked up across the globe or otherwise have been accused of having committed offenses. The report, titled “Estimating the number of children deprived of liberty in the administration of justice” — the first of its kind since 2007 — settled in at about 261,000.
But UNICEF warned that the true number is “likely to be much higher” because of incomplete records and underpowered administrative data systems.
Together, UNICEF said the reports make it clear that it’s time to “reimagine justice for children and safely end detention of all children.” The organization calls on governments and civil society to educate children, their families and professionals on the rights of youth, expand free legal aid for all children, and prioritize prevention, early intervention and diversion to appropriate alternatives to incarceration.
Among other things, UNICEF also recommends a global end to the detention of children, including by raising the age at which people can be held criminally liable.