"Childhood Without Bars" Petition: We Want Reform in Juvenile Justice, Now
In Bulgaria, children are often deprived of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily for prolonged periods of time. Evidence for this is as follows:
- Numerous available data on violence and abuse of children in places where children are deprived of liberty - boarding houses, correctional facilities, police stations.
- Accommodation in unacceptable living conditions (missing or poor ventilation, hygiene, lighting, heating and hot water facilities, bathrooms, etc.).
- No access to education (including in the investigation detention facilities) or poor quality of education.
- Lack of access to adequate medical care.
These children are punished for acts considered anti-social behavior for which adults are not sanctioned in any way, and which are an expression of suffering - truancy or running away from home, conflict with classmates or teachers, vagrancy, begging. Real crimes such as theft or damage to property are almost always the result of deprivation and the fact that the authorities do not work with the family and the community to achieve prevention and support.
All this constitutes a serious violation of international human rights law, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to which deprivation of liberty should be imposed only as a last resort and for the shortest possible period.
Children who end up in closed-type institutions are extremely vulnerable. Most of them have been abused or neglected. Their families often live in extreme poverty, without access to social services. In Bulgaria, children who are actually victims are treated as criminals.
In 2014, more than 10,000 children were affected by the current 60-Year Law on Combating Anti-Social Behavior, and more than 2,000 children in Bulgaria went through closed-type institutions – correctional facilities, pre-trial detention facilities, police stations, and border controls, homes for temporary accommodation of minors, boarding houses.
Bulgaria has been criticized repeatedly by various international and national organizations for its inadequate justice system when it comes to children's rights. This happened several times in 2015. However, there is still no comprehensive approach to children in conflict with the law and the current system reform is partial.
The child, whether a victim or a perpetrator, must first and foremost be treated by law as a child. Moreover, deprivation of liberty is not only harmful to a child but also does not help prevent re-offending. Deprivation of liberty is also the most expensive and ineffective way to "deal" with children in conflict with the law.
Bulgarian children's present and future are at stake because there are no adequate policies. That is why we insist on the following:
- Repealing the outdated Law on Combating Antisocial Behavior and adopting a new specialized law on juvenile justice, so as to create specialized juvenile courts, to introduce standards for protection against arbitrary detention, to ensure a fair trial, accessible and high-quality legal assistance.
- Children offenders aged under 14 and those over 14 with status offences (truancy, running away from home, etc.) are children at risk and should be subject only to support and protection. Deprivation of liberty for the purpose of punishment should apply only to children over the age of 14, only when absolutely necessary and for the shortest period of time.
- Closing the social-pedagogical boarding school (SPBS) and transformation of the boarding school (BS), and development of new services, measures and alternatives to depriving children of their liberty.
- Ensuring adequate living conditions in the institutions and guaranteeing access to good education and healthcare in all places where children are deprived of their liberty.
- Ending violence in closed-type institutions - both violence carried out by the employees and among the children, by implementing a series of measures.
Every day without reform in juvenile justice is one day less childhood for Bulgaria's children!
* Name and age have been changed.
** The petition was part of the "Childhood Without Bars" campaign of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Social Activities and Practice Institute, and the National Network for Children. It was submitted to the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria signed by 12,725 people through the platform Change.org.