Monday, 7 August 2017

Justice for Kids in Banda Aceh

By Cory Rogers, Communication Officer

Yudha looks out from the window at the LPKS social services centre © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017

Banda Aceh: When the cops came knocking 17-year-old Yudha was on the couch with his uncle and no time to run.

“They took me outside and asked me where I got the drugs,” Yudha said, picking at his nails at the facility in Aceh where he’s now being held.
He and his uncle had just finished smoking meth (or sabu-sabu as it is known locally) and both were in a drug-addled fog. “I told them I got the sabu-sabu from my friends,” Yudha said.

Yudha now admits he procured the meth himself. He says he’d been smoking it casually since middle school, but after his parents split up the habit began to grow; he stopped going to school, avoided going home and, in part to fuel his nascent addiction, began dealing.

In a country known for strict drug laws, the prospect of Yudha going to prison, even as a juvenile, was real. Though alternatives like social rehabilitation have grown in recent decades, thousands of children are still in prisons.

According to experts, such incarceration has lasting impacts on children. Not only does it disrupt emotional and cognitive development in the long term, it leaves children vulnerable to abuse in woefully overcrowded, understaffed prisons.

"Children held in detention and imprisonment are at risk of losing their other rights to health and education," said Ali Ramly, UNICEF Indonesia Child Protection Specialist. "It is not a safe environment, and the chances of imprisoned children turning to crime as adults upon release increases, too."
Before long Yudha was on his way to the police station seized with fear of what was to come. “I was scared, very scared,” he said. “I was just thinking how I wish I could go back to school.”

In the police car behind him, Yudha’s uncle would eventually be convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for drug crimes.

Yudha, however, would receive a different fate

For over a decade Banda Aceh has been at the forefront of UNICEF’s efforts to help the Government of Indonesia protect the rights of children in conflict with the law. In Aceh and in four other provinces where UNICEF has been working, progress is apparent on a core part of that work – keeping children out of the formal legal system altogether.

According to Ibu Elvina, who heads the Women and Children’s Protection unit at the Banda Aceh Provincial Police, juvenile justice reform in Aceh stretches back to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed some 160,000 Acehnese and orphaned thousands of children.

“I lost my husband, my children, my entire family in the tsunami,” she said. "I got involved in child protection issues because I thought I might as well help [the many] children [without parents] while I was searching for my own," she said.

She’s functioned as a champion for juvenile justice in the province ever since.

Ibu Elvina outsider her office in Banda Aceh © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017 

A turning point came in 2012 with passage of the Juvenile Justice Law, she said.

The law raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 and made diversion efforts mandatory. The diversion programme models itself upon a process of restorative justice, which bring victims and offender together to reconcile and find a path forward that does not involve retribution or jail time. The law also mainstreamed the idea that alternatives to detention should be available for youth in conflict with the law.

“This law brought Indonesia's justice system closer to international norms and its commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said Ali. “It created a crucial reference for law enforcers to initiate the restorative justice approach, which is crucial step ensuring all children’s rights are protected.”

Despite the legal victory, juvenile justice reform has progressed unevenly across the country, hamstrung by limited budgets and a lack of training among law enforcers. Even in Aceh, where about 80 per cent of cases involving juveniles have been diverted since 2014, some officers do not apply the law correctly, and children are denied their rights, says Ibu Elvina.

On the night Yudha was arrested, for example, he says he was not informed of the possibility of diversion, a central piece of the 2012 Law on diversion protocol.

Indeed, nationwide about half of juvenile cases still go to court; and while that can be because the family of the victim rejects diversion, or because the alleged crime carries a sentence of more than seven years, in some cases it is due to a lack of awareness among law enforcers regarding their obligations.

Such discrepancies are a failure of training and knowledge, says Ibu Elvina.
“We still have to work on changing [law enforcers'] mindset so they start to view children in conflict with the law as victims, too,” she added.

At present just 1,500 government officials have taken the mandatory, 120-hour training course on juvenile justice across Indonesia – far below the Government’s 21,000 target. The training manual was developed with UNICEF assistance.

The child-friendly waiting room for children facing trial at the Banda Aceh State Court © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017 

Another problem is that once someone is trained, they may only be around for a while before they move somewhere else," Ibu Elvina said. "What we really need is continuous training."

It will take around half billion dollars, the Government estimates, to fulfil all the requirements of the law, and it remains unclear whether such commitments will be made.

Justices at the Banda Aceh State Court agree prison terms for children should be a last resort.

Judge Cahyono credits mandatory training with instilling that belief, and said it was widely shared among justices in the province. But there remains a lack of clarity, he said, on how to apply certain facets of the law.

For example, the law says that juveniles only qualify for diversion if they haven't already been convicted of a crime, and also face charges of less than seven years in prison," he added.

"But what if the crime is for seven years, exactly? Then it becomes the discretion of the judge to decide whether the child can go into a diversion programme or not.”

"The seven-year limit for diversion is a problem itself,” says Justice Rahmawati, another judge, adding that it limited the discretion that could be exercised by judges seeking to apply the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

Judge Cahyono (left) and Judge Rahmawati (right) share a laugh inside the children’s court room. © Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017
If a child breaks a store window to steal instant noodles late at night with a friend, for example, such a crime would carry a sentence too heavy for diversion, she pointed out. “In my opinion the limit should be changed."
In Yudha's case, diversion was rejected by the prosecutor because of the drug dealing charge – a far more serious crime than possession in Indonesia.

But there was an unexpected silver lining. The presiding judge, cognizant of Yudha’s tough circumstances and status as a first-time offender, handed down a much-reduced term of one year to be served in a social services centre for juveniles (LPKS). Yudha will not have to go to prison. Though his liberty is still restricted, he has more freedom and more opportunity to develop than he would have had in jail.

Three times a week a music teacher comes to run a jam session at the LPKS’ third-floor activity hall, which also acts a storage space for the Banda Aceh Ministry of Social Affairs. Some of the children are, like Yudha, months into a lengthy rehabilitation. Others are there for but a few days awaiting a decision on their case.

“The main problem [with making a band] is we have to switch out players [on the instruments] when kids leave,” Yudha said, who plays guitar and likes British rock.

In January Yudha will leave the centre, at which point he says he hopes to move in with his brother and train as a mechanic.

“Either that, or I’d like to be a musician,” he says.

When asked what he planned to play at the next jam, Yudha shrugged.

“Probably some Indonesian songs. Or maybe something by the Cure.”

*The anonymity of the child has been protected. Yudha is not his real name.