THE plight of juvenile prisoners constitutes an appalling situation where young offenders are not only victimised but also led towards a life of crime. A recent survey estimates that around 2,500 under-18 children are incarcerated in various detention centres across the country. When under-trial juvenile offenders are included, the number rises to about 10,000. Most of these children are from poor backgrounds and face charges of petty crime such as stealing. By rights, they should be kept in a protected atmosphere, and if found guilty, be handed sentences that take into account the seriousness of their crime in conjunction with their age and background.
The reality, however, is dreary. Once in custody, these offenders — many of whom remain unnecessarily under trial for years — live in inhumane conditions. The dearth of juvenile detention centres and prison overcrowding mean that young offenders share prisons and cells with older detainees. They face abuse ranging from sexual exploitation to torture and forced labour. By some estimates, 70 per cent of all children who fall foul of the law are abused in some way. Close contact with older or hardened criminals means that the already disillusioned suspected offender may be induced to take up a life of crime. The psychological and physical abuse suffered in prison means that upon their release, such children are little suited to becoming productive participants in mainstream society.
Codes of conduct for the treatment of juvenile offenders do exist but have never been implemented properly. Pakistan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance was formulated in 2000. This calls for borstal institutions in each district, where juvenile inmates are provided education and vocational training. It further provides for state-provided legal counsel, provincial juvenile courts and alternative sentencing measures such as release on probation. However, few juvenile offenders have benefited because of the lack of resources of the police, judiciary and prison authorities, awareness of the ordinance and training on how to implement it. These deficiencies must be addressed on a priority basis, and a debate encouraged on the age of criminal responsibility. Moreover, the reasons behind juvenile crime must be addressed, including the lack of education, unequal economic opportunity and unemployment. The allocation for education and vocational training in the federal budget must also be raised.
Given that Pakistan’s population figures are heavily skewed towards the young, it is imperative that issues relating to juvenile crime and how it is treated be addressed.