Is Ethiopia Addressing the Special Needs of Juvenile Offenders?
Like many sub-Saharan African nations, Ethiopia provides some special treatment for juvenile offenders. The logic behind the provision of special treatment is rooted in the idea that young offenders should be given rehabilitation in order to improve their well-being and hopefully deter them from committing crimes in the future. However, many stakeholders argue that the problems facing teenage offenders extend beyond a mere desire to do bad things – that they’re linked to larger problems like homelessness, cyclical poverty, and whether or not they have attentive parents. EBR’s Meseret Mamo visited the Juvenile Delinquent Remand and Correction Centre, Ethiopia’s sole facility to address the needs of this population, to speak with key individuals involved in the juvenile justice system for this report.
On the morning of Monday, November 23, 2015, Eshetu Altaye, a slender 15 year-old boy, was sitting inside the shabby orientation room of the Juvenile Delinquents Remand and Correction Centre, located in the Lideta District of Addis Ababa. After being charged with committing a crime, the court sent him to the Centre to stay as a remand detainee until he gets acquitted or finishes his sentence as a delinquent child.
As soon as he arrived, Genet Petros, one of the counsellors at the Centre, welcomed him and explained his rights and responsibilities while staying at the Centre. “You have certain rights as long as you stay here. But you also have obligations to fulfil, since you are here for the purpose of behavioural correction,” Genet told him firmly, while EBR was there to collect information for this report. Genet continued by stating what is expected of him during his stay: “to attend class and to follow orders are a must and sleeping in somebody else’s bed or sleeping [in the same bed with another person] are forbidden, [among other things].”
Eshetu is one of the homeless kids from streets of Addis Ababa. His parents are living in the Welayta Zone of the Southern Region and do not know about his current detainment based on criminal charges. He spent nearly three months at an adult correctional facility with older offenders before coming to the Centre. The law, however, obliges courts to immediately send child offenders to a correctional centre that is designated for that demographic category.
Eshetu is among the many juvenile delinquents in Addis Ababa – a group of offenders that has unique needs due to their level of psychological, social, mental and physical development. To this end, there is only one Centre in the country that works to handle juvenile offenders in accordance with the law.
Yet, insiders note that the Juvenile Delinquent Remand and Correction Centre is not a particularly welcoming environment for the children who are sent there for rehabilitation, even when compared to the adult facility to which Eshetu was originally sent. Eshetu even said that ‘both [facilities] are ugly’ when Genet asked him about his opinions regarding the Juvenile Centre compared to the adult facility at the police station in which he was held prior to being transferred.
There are three big bedrooms at the Centre – two for boys and one for girls – each of which have the capacity to accommodate up to 70 children’s beds at a time. For the more than 80 delinquents housed at the Centre at that time, seven counsellors are assigned to take every child’s case and assist them in the course of behavioural correction. For instance, Eshetu was assigned to one of the counsellors as their 16th child to counsel and supervise.
Genet says the task of mentoring a child offender through his or her rehabilitation is difficult. “We have to make a rigorous assessment and follow up to make an effective correction on a child which most of the time is very burdensome, to the point of impossibility,” she says. She stressed that it is not only the number of kids she counsels but the fact that they come from diverse parts of the country with different languages, cultures and attitudes, that makes the job challenging.
“Being away from parents is very burdensome for a child,” says Genet, who thinks there is another justification for establishing juvenile correctional centres in every region. “The likelihood of kids that came from other region to stay on the streets of Addis is very high after finishing their time at the Centre since their parents are far away.”
Though juvenile crime is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the world, social scientists state there is no single cause that accounts for all delinquency nor does a single pathway lead to a life of crime. The discovery of a definite set of causal factors still eludes researchers.
However, a study by Bimal Kanta Nayak, a professor at the University of Gondar, assesses the unique ways in which juvenile delinquency manifests itself in Ethiopia. The study found that a number of factors – including social institutions (like school, etc.), family structure and interpersonal relationships – affect the likelihood that a child will become delinquent. In particular, the study, which observed juvenile delinquents at Gondar Prison, notes that family disintegration, lack of education, migration and poverty all led to an increased likelihood of delinquency in the sample studied.
In Ethiopia, the law provides special protection to juvenile offenders with the presumption of a lack of responsibility for the criminal act. Therefore, every institution in the legal system is supposed to give some level of leniency to minors with respect to their best interest and pursue a course of rehabilitation for child offenders. However, juvenile delinquents between 15 and 18 years of age are excluded from any privileges that other minors receive.
The Addis Ababa Police Commission has an advisory team that oversees the case of every juvenile offender and tries to find solutions outside the court system. “It is only when the case gets more serious that the police will direct the case to the court, where the court decides what correctional measure should be taken either by the parents or the correctional centre,” says Alemshet Demise, chief inspector and children case officer at the Commission.
There are also seven different courts located in seven different districts in Addis Ababa dedicated to handle the cases of juvenile offenders in the city. The cases from three remaining districts are dealt with in the Lideta court and, on average, this court hears 400 to 500 such cases per year. “It is only grave offences that will lead to punishment. Most of the time, the judge, with the help of social workers, will try to find ways of rehabilitating child offenders appropriately,” says Liulseged Liben, a judge at the Federal First Instant Court, who is also a focal person for child offenders at the Supreme court.
Still, finding alternative solutions for juvenile offenders who enter the criminal justice system may also be a difficult challenge, due in large part to the sheer number of juveniles who are charged with crimes each year. According to data from the Addis Ababa Police Commission, in the capital alone, more than 700 children have been charged with crimes every year for the past five years. These figures fluctuate slightly year to year: in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 there were 849, 799, 820, 736 and 749 criminal charges, respectively, against juveniles in the capital.
But the saturated criminal court system isn’t the only issue facing the appropriate handling of juvenile offenders – finding adequate places to detain them is an issue as well. Although the law does not explicitly state that juvenile offenders should be detained separately from adults, the Ethiopian Constitution accepts the ratified international conventions as part of the law of the country. Therefore, international conventions such as the Africa Child Convention and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stress a separate detention for child offenders, became obligatory in the country.
The logic is that in case of child delinquency, there is a need for a constructive way of dealing with children’s behavioural development. “There will be a crime contamination when juvenile delinquents are forced to stay with adult criminals,” says Liulseged. “There will also be a high probably for the young offenders to get abused by the adults.”
However, the act of detaining juvenile delinquents together with adult criminals has been the case in the history of prison administration of the country. The Comprehensive Justice Reform Programme Base Line Study report of 2005, which was released by the then-Ministry of Capacity Building, suggests that the separation of detention centre for juvenile delinquents within the age range of 15 to 18 is the top priority in the country’s legal reform programme.
The Human Rights Protection Monitoring Report, which was released in 2012 by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, reveals that no action has been taken in separating detentions of juvenile offenders between the ages 15 to 18 from adult criminals.
According to the Report, in the Tigray Region in 2011, Juvenile detainees between the ages 15-18 years were accommodated in separate rooms in only two detention centres and five prisons. The study also found that in the Somali Region, juvenile detainees are kept separately in one prison, while in the Southern, Gambella, Harari, Benshangul-Gumuz and Afar regions, juvenile detainees between the ages of 15-18 were not kept in separate buildings or rooms at all.
Federal detention centres also haven’t been compliant in separating juvenile offenders from adults. Of the six detention centres, only the detention centre in Dire Dawa keeps detainees separately by age group, while in 83.3Pct of federal prisons juvenile detainees are held in facilities with adults.
EBR contacted the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to learn about what is being done to be more diligent about following international conventions and separating adult and children offenders. According to the Ministry, they do not have the mandate to monitor the implementation of the law nor the budget to do so with respect to having a separate detention centre for children between 15-18 years of age. However, according to Abiy Ephrem, public relations director at the Ministry, they are ready to work on improving the issue. With regard to those who are under the age of 15, the Ministry acknowledges that one facility to address their needs isn’t enough. Still, they say nothing is being done to address the issue in a concrete manner.
Despite the administrative challenges vis-à-vis managing juvenile offenders in the criminal justice system, experts say that those who get out of the system face the possibility of recidivism if they do not get proper help once they are released. Case assessments by the police, the court and the Juvenile Delinquent Remand and Correction Centre demonstrate that poor parental follow-up and family breakups are the main factors that pave the way for a child to commit a crime and re-enter the system. The increasing number of streets children is also another reason contributing to cycles of crime among youth according to stakeholders. They argue that, for many of Ethiopia’s poorest kids, cyclical poverty is a big determinant factor in crime. “Correction centres don’t work for street kids no matter how long they stay [imprisoned] or for how many times they join the centres,” stresses Genet. “As long as they stay in the street, we know that committing a crime is their means of survival.” EBR
4th Year • December 16 2015 – January 15 2016 • No. 34