Wednesday, 20 May 2015

New law, high hopes: Juvenile justice in Makassar


By Nick Baker, Communication and Knowledge Management Officer

Akmal is in school instead of a Makassar prison cell (pictured).
©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

Fourteen-year-old Akmal* sits in the corridor of a large government office in Makassar. He seems nervous – playing with the zipper on his backpack, constantly adjusting his school uniform. It’s understandable given the imposing surroundings. “I’m OK,” he says softly. “This is better than a prison.”

A few months ago, Akmal was walking the Makassar streets with a friend. The friend decided to prove his bravado by stealing a gas canister from a nearby shop. Things didn’t go as planned and both boys were apprehended by police.

A prison sentence for petty crime is common in Indonesia. Although Akmal was not directly involved in the gas canister theft, a lengthy stint in prison was the expected outcome. But, thanks to the new Juvenile Criminal System Law that came into force in August 2014, Akmal’s story turned out very differently.


The new law, passed with major technical support from UNICEF, stipulates that imprisonment should be “the last resort” for children. Instead there should be a “diversion process”. Diversion involves sessions with the offender, the victims, as well as family, community leaders and authorities to work out an appropriate outcome – based on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

For Akmal, this meant being called into a police facility where a mediation took place with all parties. Akmal was given the opportunity to explain his side of the story. There was a productive discussion with the owner of the gas canister. By the end of the session, all involved believed that Akmal would be better in the community than behind bars.

Akmal was visiting the government office with his brother Bagus* to discuss progress. During the diversion, it was decided that Bagus would be Akmal’s mentor in the rehabilitation. It’s a role Bagus takes very seriously. “I’m happy with how this has gone,” he says. “Because Akmal is at school instead of prison – that is the most important thing.”

“Our Children Have More Choices”


The latest addition to Makassar Prison.
©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

At the nearby Makassar Prison, a large sign has recently been installed. It reads: “Warning: Adult Inmates Are Not Allowed in the Child Block”. The sign marks the perimeter of a new children’s wing. This too has been a result of the Juvenile Criminal System Law. Previously, children and adults lived together in this prison. Now they must be kept apart.

One of the prison officers, Officer Hardi*, says the previous unsegregated system posed all sorts of problems for the younger inmates. “Adults would often intimidate the children,” he says. “Young people could be exploited. This would lead to all sorts of worrying mental health effects.”

The law also specifies that separate children’s facilities should be as child-friendly as possible. Officer Hardi says this is the case at his prison: “The law has put an increased focus on the rights of children within prison. For example, now we provide them with more education and recreational opportunities. Our children have more choices.”

Officer Hardi says he has seen firsthand the effect of diversion. There has been a dip in the number of child inmates since the new law came into effect. “In the past, we would usually have about 130 children here, at the moment there is only about 90,” he says. “The number is continuing to get smaller.”

It’s a trend that’s being replicated nationally. In July 2014 there were 3,488 children in Indonesian prisons – in March 2015 that number had already fallen to 2,207.

A Long Road Ahead

Ibu Sri, Ibu Feri and Pak Adnan are Makassar-based lawyers involved in child cases.
©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

“There was a young boy who stole an umbrella and got five months in prison,” says one participant.

“And the six-year-old child who got five years because someone got him to hold onto drugs,” says another.

“What about those kids who got over a year for stealing a gas canister?” a third participant says, creating a parallel to Akmal’s case.

Some key players in the juvenile justice process have gathered at a UNICEF discussion in Makassar. The lawyers, NGO representatives and social workers sit around a table and talk about their work. None of them have trouble referencing a case over the past few years where children have been treated in a disproportionate, unfair or abusive manner. They all agree it was a broken system.

Participants think the new law is an important step in the right direction. They specifically see diversion as a game changer. “This is a new way of thinking – it is about having concern for both the victim and the offender. It’s about realizing the offender is a child and focusing on rehabilitating them,” says Pak Ichsan, a social worker from the Ministry of Social Affairs.

A lawyer, Pak Adnan, says he’s started to notice the difference in his work. “Now there’s special diversion facilities in the courthouses,” he says. “For me, diversion means treating a child as a child. Child rights are now enshrined in the new legislation. A peaceful agreement between parties is much better than jail time which disrupts schooling.”

The head of the Women and Child Protection Unit of South Sulawesi Police, Ibu Afri, is also optimistic. For her, the new law could have a major impact on the social fabric of Makassar. “Before, children who committed petty crimes were punished heavily. Not anymore,” she says. “Diversion is important because children are the future of the nation. Maybe some of these children will even grow up and become police officers!”

It’s a long road ahead. The government recently estimated that it will take US$700 million over the next five years to fulfil all the requirements of the new law. Then there’s the challenge of making sure the specifics of the law are consistent across the entire archipelago of Indonesia – that police, prisons and judges all focus on restorative justice when it is applicable.

UNICEF will take a lead role in facilitating the rollout of the law. It will continue to support the Ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Law and Human Rights, the National Development Planning Agency and other partners to make sure the law is fully implemented.

Because for children like Akmal, the new law means a second chance.


*Names changed.

The Government of Norway supports UNICEF in making the Juvenile Criminal System Law a reality for all children in Indonesia.

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