Invisible Children

"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security."  - Invisible Children

Children in the Justice System


Hundreds of thousands of children worldwide face stark futures when they cross legal systems.  UNICEF estimates there are over one million children detained in justice systems globally at any one time, and this number is likely a low estimate because so many are not officially reported.[i]   Of 44 countries with data, 59% of children in detention had not been sentenced.  A majority of detained children have not committed serious offenses, charged only with such crimes as running away from home, truancy, alcohol use, or breaking curfew.[ii]

More than 50,000 children under the age of 16 are held in adult detention centers in the Philippines for crimes of varying degree.  Bahrain has tried, convicted and jailed 4,500 children under the age of 17 with adults.  Nearly 5,000 children 16 and younger have been detained in Pakistan without being convicted, most housed in adult prisons where incidents of physical abuse run high.  China, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan have executed individuals who were children at the time of their offense.[iii]

Children in prison are separated from any family support they might have, are routinely abused both physically and sexually, and, without the means to secure quality legal representation, can languish for months, or even years, before their cases are brought forward.   Young people who have entered the criminal justice system often lack the opportunity to reenter society in productive ways.  Their incarceration contributes to the cycle of criminality and stigma.[iv] 

On any given day in the United States, approximately 70,000 American youth are incarcerated,[v] the majority for nonviolent offenses.  Two-thirds are children of color.[vi]  2,500 young people have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18.  Of these, 77% of young women, and 20% of all youth lifers, have reported sexual abuse. [vii]  None of these young people carries hope or expectation for life outside a prison.  In Texas, prisoners as young as 16 can be sentenced to solitary confinement as a means of separating them from adult prison populations with average stays spanning six months to a year.  In solitary there is no socialization except for an hour a day, education is nonexistent, and mental health care is rare.  As a result, they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than prisoners in juvenile facilities.[viii]

Another problem facing thousands of young children across the world is being forced to live in prison with an incarcerated parent because there is no one else to care for them. In Kenya, hundreds of children under the age of four live with their mothers in that country’s prison system. Almost all are confined with their mothers in their cells, lacking the stimulation and outlets that create healthy children. There is no educational access, no playtime with friends, and little recreation. [ix] In Mexico City’s high security prisons, numerous children live with their mothers.[x] In Bolivia more than 1,400 children are housed in prison with their mothers.[xi] In India children under 5 stay with their parents in prison because they have no place else to go.[xii]


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[i] UNICEF, 2007., ‘Children in Detention: Calculating global estimates for Juvenile Justice Indicators 2 and 3’, Programme Division, UNICEF, New York,.  Cited in: UNICEF, 2009.  Progress for Children: A report card on child protection, Report No. 8, UNICEF, New York, p. 20.
[ii] UNICEF, 2007., ‘Children in Detention: Calculating global estimates for Juvenile Justice Indicators 2 and 3’, Programme Division, UNICEF, New York,.  Cited in: UNICEF, 2009.  Progress for Children: A report card on child protection, Report No. 8, UNICEF, New York, p. 20.
[iii] http://www.amnesty.org/en/children
[iv] http://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_57999.html
[v] http://www.nber.org/papers/w19102 cited in Nicholas Kristof, “’Jane’ Didn’t Get the Help She Needed: When the Juvenile Justice System Isn’t the Answer”, New York Times, June 28, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-when-the-juvenile-justice-system-isnt-the-answer.html
[vi] http://www.southerneducation.org/getattachment/b80f7aad-405d-4eed-a966-8d7a4a12f5be/Just-Learning-Executive-Summary.aspx cited in Nicholas Kristof, “’Jane’ Didn’t Get the Help She Needed: When the Juvenile Justice System Isn’t the Answer”, New York Times, June 28, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-when-the-juvenile-justice-system-isnt-the-answer.html
[vii]Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth,  http://fairsentencingofyouth.org/what-is-jlwop/ and http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/jj_The_Lives_of_Juvenile_Lifers.pdf  cited in Nicholas Kristof, “’Jane’ Didn’t Get the Help She Needed: When the Juvenile Justice System Isn’t the Answer”, New York Times, June 28, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-when-the-juvenile-justice-system-isnt-the-answer.html
[viii]Amy Fettig, “16 and Solitary: Texas Jails Isolate Children,” https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights-criminal-law-reform/16-and-solitary-texas-jails-isolate-children
[ix] Zadock Angira, “”Hundreds of Children Under Four Live in Prison With Their Mothers,” Nairobi Daily Nation, February 21, 2012
[x] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/31/world/americas/31mexico.html?pagewanted=all
[xi] http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1890642,00.html
[xii] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4354712.stm

Demographics of Invisibility