Lost in the Justice System

Children in conflict with the law in Eastern Europe and Central Asia


Date of publication:  01 May 2008 Publisher:  UNICEF Publication type:  Report / Study / Data


In every country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia the juvenile justice systems need to be reformed, if not created. This fact is confirmed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which notes in its ‘Concluding Observations’ that provisions of law or practice in these countries are not compatible with international standards. In response to the Committee’s concerns, UNICEF began its work on reforming juvenile justice systems throughout the region, where 12 UNICEF Country Offices have explicitly included juvenile justice reform as a priority.

UNICEF works with National Statistical Offices to collect data on juvenile offending and justice response from the region, which is referred to by UNICEF as ‘Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS)’. For this report, basic quantitative and qualitative data spanning the years 1989 to 2005 were obtained through the MONEE project for a total of 20 countries.3 Viewpoints and recommendations put forward in the report have been informed by a range of sources, but fundamentally reflect UNICEF’s approach to juvenile justice – including emphasis on child rights, prevention and the principles of restorative justice – as well as the lessons learned from a recent four-country evaluation of UNICEF’s contribution to juvenile justice reform in the region (UNICEF and DRN, 2007).

Key findings and conclusions

  • There is a grave lack of data on juvenile justice.Poor data collection systems, along with a lack of transparency and data sharing, mean that there is much we simply do not know.
  • Juvenile offending is not increasing in recent years. In most countries, the rates of offending between 2000 and 2005 were either stable or fluctuating/decreasing. In Belarus and the Russian Federation, rates of juvenile offending increased from 2002 to 2005, though more slowly than offending amongst the general population.
  • The minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) is generally set suitably high (at 14–16 years), but this is no guarantee that children aged below or above it will be treated appropriately and according to international standards within the justice system.
  • The extent to which Local Commissions for Minors are truly diversionary is questionable. It has been argued that local commissions serve a useful diversionary role as they direct children away from judicial proceedings, who therefore avoid unnecessary and potentially counterproductive stigmatization associated with the judicial process. However, the composition and mandates of some of these commissions, especially their powers to authorize a custodial response, are not in line with international standards. It should also be noted that the potential of commissions to be ‘diversionary’ only applies to children who are old enough to be prosecuted. Many children brought before commissions are under the age of criminal responsibility.
  • The period between arrest and conviction is a ‘twilight zone’, due to the lack of clear information about children arrested and held in police custody or pre-trial detention.
  • ‘Deprivation of liberty’ is still the norm. Reports from all countries in the region clearly show that sentencing children to deprivation of liberty is a common response to juvenile offending, often in the name of ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘education’ rather than purely as a ‘punitive’ measure. Although the ‘educational’ approach sounds progressive on the surface, there is cause for misgiving as many of these institutions do not have the resources to truly rehabilitate children. While it is encouraging to observe a decline in the number of children deprived of their liberty, the numbers are likely to be an underestimate due to the lack of comprehensive data on children in ‘educational’ institutions and in pre-trial detention.
  • The use of alternative community-based sentences is being increasingly reported, and there are some examples of countries where legislative change has led to changes in the responses. However, a lack of comparable data across the region hampers ability to monitor progress.3
  • The placement of children in ‘protective custody’ is a sign of a failing system of care. Children may be taken into custody and placed in institutional care for their own ‘protection’. This phenomenon is evidence of law enforcement and the wider justice system ‘stepping into the vacuum’ created by the lack of effective social services for children and their families. The functions and mandates of the institutions where children are placed are rarely articulated, and they tend to be poorly regulated with no inspections or quality assurance.
  • While awareness is growing for the need for prevention and rehabilitation, action is limited. Some efforts are being made in primary prevention (creating safer environments), but little has been achieved on a tertiary level (reintegrating offenders). It is of great concern that some countries are showing an increasing reliance upon the institutionalization of children as a means of prevention. Data on recidivism are currently lacking, a crucial indicator of the success of prevention and rehabilitation strategies in reducing reoffending.
  • The common approach of giving children the same type of adult sentences, but shorter – often deemed to be showing ‘leniency’ – is not necessarily in the best interest of the child, nor is it in the best interest of the victim or the community as a whole. In fact, it is argued that this ‘lenient’ approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the international standards for juvenile justice. There is particular concern for children who are too young to be prosecuted, as the report has revealed an obvious lack of regulation of specific measures that can be imposed on this category of children, and an absence of preventative and rehabilitative services. Overall, this study reaffirms the need to challenge mindsets and attitudes towards children and their rights, and to tailor justice responses to their individual needs and circumstances.
  • The window of opportunity for reform is open. This report has found more indications of progress than of regression, which, coupled with visible examples of good practice, suggests that potential for improvement is currently great. Many countries in the region are experiencing a decline in juvenile offending and a rise in economic growth. At the same time, child populations are shrinking, thereby strengthening the argument for investing in ‘human capital’. Sweeping political changes have resulted in increasing receptivity of governments to reform in all areas concerning human rights, further supported by the existence of an increasingly vibrant civil society.


The recommendations presented here are addressed primarily to governments and international organizations working in juvenile justice reform in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS).

1. There is a need to articulate the basic aims of juvenile justice and outline a clear ‘vision’ to guide juvenile justice reform towards these aims.

2. All forms of ‘deprivation of liberty’ need to be acknowledged, and their purpose and functions reassessed in relation to international standards.

3. Criminalization of children needs to be limited with the establishment of effective diversionary schemes that correspond to international standards and, in this light, the mandates of Local Commissions for Minors need to be assessed.

4. A range of services for children and their families must be established, both preventative and

5. Systematic data collection systems must be established or developed, building upon a regional consensus on indicators and targets for reform.

6. Good practices and lessons learned must be synthesized and shared.

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