Using the Criminal Justice System to Address Anti-Social Behaviour & Minor Offences by Children
4 March 2021
Horizon Institute is today publishing the fourth report of its series dedicated to the response of the justice sector in Somaliland when children run into trouble with the law. Using the Criminal Justice System to Address Anti-Social Behaviour & Minor Offences examines how, and why, many young people who have been convicted of offences which are not very serious, or because of their anti-social behaviour, end up in prison. The report details what the consequences and implications are for them, their families and for Somaliland as a whole. Horizon also puts forward recommendations which are necessary and feasible to ensure that young people are not unnecessarily arrested, charged, prosecuted and imprisoned, and that the police and courts are not used as a replacement for social services.
For many children, it might be their first time in trouble with the law. When children and young people fight each other, steal, drop out of school, run away from home, indulge in substance abuse or suffer from mental health problems, there must, of course, be an intervention. The criminal justice system certainly has an important role to play in handling violent and serious crime. Too often, however, families are turning to the police, the courts and the prisons either to evade their own obligations to their children, or because they are genuinely overwhelmed and unable to cope with the challenges. In the absence of social services provided by the State, police officers are expected to work as social workers, a role for which they have neither the training nor the resources. More often than not, they respond by rounding up and detaining groups of young people to keep them out of trouble or to punish them at the request of their families. The same is true of some prosecutors and judges who see themselves as performing a public duty when they charge, convict and send young people to prison for long periods of time “to teach them a lesson.”
This common approach has serious consequences, especially given the overcrowded and poor conditions of police stations and prisons which rarely have juvenile sections or educational and vocational training programs for young people. Detention in police cells and imprisonment harms the physical well-being and mental health of young people and offer little or no opportunity for rehabilitation. The experience disrupts or ends their education and therefore affects their employment prospects. It damages their self-esteem and social skills and limits their ability to reintegrate into society. The pressures on the families — financial, emotional and time — are immeasurable.
The current emphasis on detention and imprisonment is also costly for Somaliland’s government. Diverting first-time offenders of less serious offences from the justice system would save money that can be better spent on educational and social services. In the long-term, it does little to protect society from crime. On the contrary, by incarcerating impressionable young people with hardened adult criminals, the chances are they will emerge from prison with the know-how for engaging in far more deadly crimes. Sending teenagers to prison is not the answer. Parents, the extended family, community leaders, educators and social services are much better placed to tackle socially unacceptable behaviour.
Nothing can be more important than taking care of our children when they are at their most vulnerable. Ending this destructive cycle requires, above all, government leadership to craft, implement and oversee well-thought out strategies to prevent anti-social and offending behaviour before it reaches the criminal justice system. The family, schools, the government and the wider community must work together both on prevention, and on how to cater for those children, and families, who are unable to cope.
This report is the fourth instalment in the five-part series, A Collective Failure: How Somaliland’s Criminal Justice System Harms Children and What We Can All Do About It. The series aims to build public interest and confidence in rectifying these injustices.
To read the full report click here.