In recent years, the Cambodian Government has ramped up its crackdown on a perceived “drugs problem”. Within this context, many children and young people, from varying backgrounds have been caught up and sentenced long prison for non violent and/or misdemeanor type infractions. A community development and dialogue driven NGO based in Cambodia, This Life believes that sentencing children and young people to long, disproportionate sentences in prison is wrong in the light of the harm that this has on childhood and adulthood. This Life advocates for the development and delivery of Diversion Programs, which are community-based programs of action, that are used as development pathways for children, and which are adopted as alternative prison sentences
By Philip J Gover BA MA MPH
Impact, Learning & Effectiveness Lead – This Life
Diversionary Measures for Children in Conflict with the Law
A Public Health Response
A Community Development Action Research Project
Links to the Full Report at the end
This Life is an NGO, based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This Life is a community development driven NGO, that places dialogue at the forefront of development. Using these development tools, This Life discovered a depth of community concern, that related to young people who were in conflict with the law.
In Cambodia, it is not uncommon for young people to spend disproportionately long sentences in prison, for nonviolent and/or misdemeanor type infractions.
12 years ago, This Life was talking with communities, about children who found themselves in conflict with the law. This happens everywhere, we know. However, from our conversations, we discovered that communities thought that the ways in which children were punished, was both inappropriate and wrong.
From discussions, we realised that many young people faced long sentences, in overcrowded prisons, for minor, non-violent misdemeanor type offences. We also learned of other things, that spending long periods of time in prison, effectively ruined their chances of establishing and developing their education. We learned of health problems and other explicit risks, which to be frank, children and young people really shouldn’t have to face, in any setting, in the 21st Century!
In time, this conversation developed further, so, This Life conducted a primary research project. The project attempted to perception test the value of diversion – which refers to community-based programs of action, that are used as development pathways for children, and used as alternative sentences to prison. It’s worth noting that we are talking about children and young people who commit minor, non-violent offences.
We thought that the research might reveal a lot of objections to this concept, but no. There was really no resistance to this at all.
From our research we recognised the drivers of crime. Drugs (recreational drug use and addiction related) were a primary root cause. Theft was often opportunistic and linked to drug related addiction. Theft was also linked to poverty, with crimes of personal desperation also acting as a root cause. Upon assessment, we noted that majority of child convictions were for non-violent offences, mostly drug related, and theft. In 64% of cases, children said their drug use had led them to commit crimes. In summary, we noted that young people, from poorer families and whom already had an incomplete education of some sort, were extremely vulnerable to conviction.
In Cambodia, the law on Juvenile Justice came into force in 2017. Indeed, the law does state that detention before or after conviction, should be a last resort for children. Unfortunately, since then, things having quite evolved in quite the same spirit. In fact, we have seen a tripling of children and young people entering prison.
There are a number of ways to explain this, but for now, let me explain it like this. It’s difficult to see change unfold on a daily basis, but over time it becomes clear. Perhaps clearer in those eyes of a foreign witness like me.
Cambodian urban centers have grown and rural districts have dwindled. New housing developments and consumption patterns are promoted daily, through new forms of mass media. The nation is entertained via a thousand global digital channels. Machines of convenience and consumer goods are visible and available. Under the eyes of abundance, alcohol remains cheap and consumption has risen exponentially, in line with multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns that target young people across every conceivable sensory landscape. In line with modest increases in disposable income, recreational drug use is now common, although viewed and abridged alongside drug injecting addiction. Young people’s lifestyles and aspirations have also changed – especially amongst the urban dwellers. Cambodian customs and tradition remain strong in the mind’s eye of young people, but they also know how to play Grand Theft Auto!
At the same time, and set against all of this, is that volume of poverty, that eclipses middle-class neighborhoods. Cambodia is still characterized by some of the poorest communities in SE Asia – and ironically, these communities sit cheek and jowl across Cambodia’s skyscraper capital. In this environment, multiple deprivation is raw, real and often obscene.
In recent years, the Cambodian Government has ramped up its crackdown on a perceived “drugs problem”. Within this context, many children and young people, from varying backgrounds have been caught up and convicted within the same net. So now, it would appear that the system has the capability to displace one problem with another.
There is an abundance of evidence that illustrates the heightened risk(s), that being in prison has on an individual’s life – both in the short, medium and long term. This needs no defense. This is largely because we know of those toxic elements that co-exist within prison settings, and which are at complete odds with a core principle of justice – law and order, or loss of liberty and rehabilitation. The following is just a simple list of common risks that we know exist and are associated with prison settings:
- Extreme overcrowding of prison cells – contribute to mental health risks
- Poor nutrition and lack of exercise – contribute to physical health risks
- Poor hygiene – contributes to fast-track transmission of preventable disease
- Person to person bullying and sexual assault
- Illicit drug abuse
- Gang and criminal association
- Increased criminal awareness amongst prisoners
- Limited education and development opportunities
- Identity loss and stigma ownership – contributing to broken family and social relations
- Future employment barriers
Collectively, these are risks that are supplementary to the loss of liberty and pursuit of rehabilitation.
From our research we recognised the drivers of crime. Drugs (recreational drug use and addiction related) were a primary root cause. Theft was often linked to drug related addiction. Theft was also linked to poverty, with crimes of personal desperation also acting as root cause.
This Life believes that sentencing children and young people to long, disproportionate sentences in prison is wrong. We recognise the harm that this has on childhood and adulthood.
As a community development and dialogue driven NGO, we advocate for the development and delivery of Diversion Programs, which are community-based programs of action, that are used as development pathways for children, and which are adopted as alternative prison sentences.
Summary of the Research Project
- To perception test the value of Diversion, as development pathways for children, and which can be used as alternative sentences to prison.
- To identify the status of implementation of the Cambodian Law on Juvenile Justice, including the main progress and gaps in implementation.
- To understand why progress towards reform has been slow despite the adoption of the Law in 2017.
- To gather the views and experiences of children in conflict with the law, community representatives, police and judicial officials.
- To determine how best NGOs can support initiatives towards building a child-friendly justice system in Cambodia.
- Desk research involving discussions with relevant local and international actors, and an analysis of the situation of children in Cambodian prisons based on existing literature, This Life’s own research and relevant international standards.
- Surveys with 76 children, including 11 girls, currently held in Siem Reap prison accused or convicted of misdemeanor crimes
- Interviews with 13 children in Siem Reap prison, including three girls and interviews with seven children who have been released from prison.
- Surveys with 77 community members and interviews with members of Commune Committees for Women and Children.
- Interviews with regional police representatives, judges at Siem Reap Court, and members of the local Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSAVY).
- The majority of child convictions were for non-violent offences, mostly drug use, drug trafficking and theft. 64% of children said that their drug-use had led them to commit crimes.
- Siem Reap has a significantly higher rate of child prisoners than any other province.
- 89% of children surveyed had never been to prison before. The majority had enough stability and security in their lives to support diversion and community-based alternatives to prison.
- 58% of community members thought that prison was bad for children and only 13% thought that children who commit non-violent crimes should be sent to prison. The majority thought that education or vocational training would be the best alternative to prison for children.
- Officials are supportive of the law and are keen to begin implementation as soon as possible.
- Stakeholders agree that NGOs can play a key role in helping authorities implement alternatives to prison for children.
The main impediments to implementing the law are not resistance towards and misperception about alternative measures, but a lack of effective coordination and commitment amongst all stakeholders, and a lack of clear directives and budgetary allocation from authorities. Without the support of local NGOs, it could be a very long time before there is a significant decrease in the numbers of children being sent to prison
- This Life to work closely with children, families, communities and authorities to assist implementation of the Law.
- This Life to offer individual, tailored support to children diverted from the criminal justice system.
- The focus of juvenile justice reform should be crime prevention and diversionary measures.
- Reform initiatives to be closely monitored to ensure they are in the best interests of the child.
This Life is currently in the process of developing an exciting prospectus of new community action research projects, that will seek to amplify the value and importance of community driven dialogue. We will seek funding to conduct this research, and act on the evidence that it delivers. We will use the evidence base as a means to influence and invigorate ill-advised juvenile justice practice, and represent the long-term interests of children and young people.
This Life is pleased to announce that at the time of writing, resources have been made available, that will enable This Life to deliver Cambodia’s first Youth Diversion Project. This will occur in Siem Reap Province, during 2021.
Billy Gorter will be presenting this research online, at the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Conference, Milan, June 7-11, 2021.
Billy Gorter – Executive Director – This Life
Billy is a passionate activist and advocate for change, bringing more than 20 years of experience tackling conservation, social and human rights and educational issues in Australia and Cambodia to his role as Executive Director of This Life. Billy launched This Life Cambodia in 2007 based on his founding principles of listening to, engaging with and advocating alongside communities. This development philosophy achieves high-impact outcomes and sets best practice for international development. Billy is internationally sought after as a speaker and is passionately committed to addressing the rights of children through education, juvenile justice and advocacy.
Philip J Gover – Impact, Learning & Effectiveness Lead – This Life
Philip is a graduate from Durham University Business School (UK), with an MA (Business Enterprise Management), MPH (Public Health) from the University of Northumbria and a BA Hons’ in Community Development from Durham University. As a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and Chartered Management Institute, Philip has worked in developing countries in East Africa, South East Asia and various youth settings across Europe. Following 3 years’ involvement with Northumbria University Sustainable Cities Institute, he spent 12 years working as a Senior Public Health Manager with the UK NHS, and as a Director of a Social Housing Association and Citizens Advice Bureau.