Keeping children out of prison

Fifteen-year-old Aisha* was convicted and jailed for four months because she and her boyfriend drove off with her grandfather’s motorcycle. Her grandfather, a patriarch in a conservative Muslim society that disapproved of her relationship, charged her with theft.


“I did something wrong, but my grandfather overreacted,” she said from the modest cement cell she shares with a few older women.


Thousands of children are behind bars in Indonesia - where the minimum age of criminal responsibility is eight - often for petty crimes. The majority are detained with adults, leaving them vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse.


“This is about the system of law in Indonesia. All state apparatuses - police, prosecutors, professional officers - do not have the skills to deal with children in conflict with the law,” said Setiawan Cahyo Nugroho, child rights programme manager for Save the Children in Indonesia. “There is no state response that is based on family-based care, community-based care or promoting restorative justice.”


At any one time, some 5,000 children are incarcerated in Indonesia, either awaiting trial or convicted, says the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), citing corrections department figures.


Aceh Province, on the far western tip of Indonesia, is one community trying to fix this problem by bringing together parents, police and communities to keep children out of prison.


“If they commit a crime and go to jail, they become even worse criminals than before - this always happens,” said Zubedy Koteng, child protection specialist for UNICEF in Aceh. “Now that there is this diversion process, we have very few children where they commit a second time.”


Children jailed with adults


In Aceh alone, there were 66 children behind bars in April, including 29 boys on trial, and 36 boys and a girl - Aisha - already convicted.


Save the Children’s Nugroho has met a 10-year-old boy imprisoned for five years on murder charges after a street brawl and a 9-year-old serving nine months for taking a neighbour’s fish.


Nine out of 10 children sent to court in 2009 were sentenced to prison, according to the National Commission for Child Protection.


“It’s actually common,” said Deka Nurbayani, who is one of seven officers handling women and children’s cases for the Banda Aceh District Police. “People file police reports because they think this is a place that will scare children from repeat offenses.”


Photo: Alisa Tang/IRIN
The Banda Aceh district police station has a child-friendly detention room. The district's women and children desk unit handled 133 cases of children in conflict with the law in 2009

The University of Indonesia found that 85 percent of children detained are mixed with adult inmates.


Aisha is the only girl in the Aceh Besar District prison in Jantho - about a one-hour drive along narrow roads east of Banda Aceh. Unable to sit her school exams, she has failed them.


“She should be allowed to go home and go to school,” said the prison chief, Fahyudi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. When children are sent to his prison, Fahyudi gives them tasks to keep them away from the adult inmates.


“They learn from the experts here, and they practice their new-learned skills on the outside,” he said. “One already got caught again - he’s back in prison. The first time, he was only 17.”


Nugroho said child inmates are often sexually abused or used as “slaves” by older prisoners or prison guards.


Diversion through dialogue


In Aceh, the Women and Children Desk Unit, where policewoman Nurbayani works, was set up in 2006 to keep children out of prison through dialogue. The desk handled 133 cases of children in conflict with the law in 2009.


In a recent case in Meunasah Kreung village, two 15-year-old boys stole money from a mosque donation box to play video games. Several men caught the boys, said deputy village chief Anmulyadi Rianto, who brought them to police.


After Rianto, the boys’ families, police and a local NGO signed a document ensuring the parents would keep watch over the boys, they were released.


“If there is still a chance to educate them, that is better than putting them in jail because jail will only make them worse,” Rianto said.


A new draft of the juvenile delinquency law is being prepared and would raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12 - though UNICEF recommends at least 14 years of age. The draft makes diversion mandatory for non-serious cases and detention a last resort.


Nugroho urged the government to train police, prosecutors and judges how to handle and mediate children’s cases. Until then, he said, Indonesians will see it as acceptable to press charges against and jail young boys and girls.


“The state is not promoting these types of interventions, so society believes that the best way is to get legal authorities to prosecute children in conflict with the law.”

* Not her real name