JUVENILE JUSTICE: Children and the administration of justice in Latin America

[8 March 2012] - The use of detention for child offenders "is the norm rather than the exception" in Latin America, with the number of children in pre-trial detention on the increase, said Plan International's UN representative in Geneva, Ms Anne-Sophie Lois, at an event held at the Human Rights Council. 

Regional context 

This situation occurs as a result of concerns about public security throughout the region and the perceived need for a “mano dura” (a heavy hand) approach. In this context, children are seen as "social enemies and figures to be feared" – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who also comprise the highest number of the population in detention centres. This leads to discrimination against juvenile offenders who, even after completing their sentence, are still seen as criminals and untrustworthy. 

Inequality and discrimination is prevalent among Latin American countries, said the panellist Mr Luis Pedernera from Uruguay, saying that many parts of the region have been ghettoised. He added that poverty particularly affects women and children, Afro-descendents and people with disabilities, concluding that out of all the marginalised groups, children are the most criminalised.

Children in the justice system

“Children in Latin America are detained indiscriminately”, said Mr Pedernera, “and not because they have committed an offence, but because of their appearance and race” – thus raising the issue of police profiling.

Proposals to reduce the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) in some countries also represent a troubling trend, Mr Pedernera warned. He gave the example of Uruguay, where there is a petition to amend the constitution so as to lower the MACR in the coming years. Such legislative proposals have also been produced in Argentina and Brazil.

On the issue of torture, Mr Pedernera also denounced that confessions are often gained through the use of torture because authorities allegedly do not trust young people’s testimonies.

And on the issue of neglect, he raised concerns about how young children living in prison with an incarcerated mother suffer the same “perpetual neglect” as the mother.

He concluded that human rights standards related to the above issues already exist, so what is left to do is for States to effectively implement them. 

Inter-American Commission report on juvenile justice

The debate also saw reflection on the report on Juvenile Justice and Human Rights by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which sets out fundamental standards on the issue of children and the administration of justice. 

The report argues that “the element of retribution is not appropriate within the juvenile justice systems if the objectives pursued are the reintegration and rehabilitation of the child.”

Presenting the report was a representative of the Commission’s Office for the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, who stressed that States must take into consideration the socio-economic backgrounds of offending children to establish their lived realities and the possible causes that drove them to commit an offence in the first place. 

He also said that the conviction records of young offenders should be destroyed once they reach the age of 18, “in order to prevent the records’ misuse” if he or she re-offends in the future.

Children in pre-trial detention

Children can spend up to nine months in pre-trial detention in Chile, said Mr Pedernera, who also highlighted that the distress produced by spending a period of time in detention is felt much more strongly by children than by adults, alluding to the special emotional needs of children and the need for family support during childhood and adolescence. 

A child’s perspective 

“When a crime is committed, children always end up on the front page of newspapers” and identified as the perpetrators, condemned 15-year-old Rocio Peña, youth representative from El Salvador’s National Network of Children and Adolescents (RENAES).

“Mentions of children are synonymous with words like delinquent and gang member”, she added. 

Representing the sentiment of her fellow RENAES youth members, Miss Peña affirmed that “we want our opinions be taken into account in decisions that concern us, so as to make those decisions truly democratic”. 


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