Photo courtesy of IPS

In a progressive move, Sri Lanka has shed ambiguity in its child protection laws with an amendment transforming the Children and Young Persons’ Ordinance into the Children’s Ordinance. Crucially, the amendment raises the age of protection from 16 to 18, aligning with global child rights standards. This landmark change strengthens the juvenile justice system and promises better outcomes for youth.

The UN defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. The previous terminology created potential confusion. Clear laws are essential for their effective implementation and public understanding. The previous terms children and young persons created a grey area in the law. Depending on the interpretation, a 16 or 17 year old could have fallen outside the safeguards explicitly designed for vulnerable youth. By establishing a clear age limit of 18, there is no room for debate on who deserves the specialised protections of the Children’s Ordinance.

The Children’s Ordinance prioritises rehabilitation for young offenders. Juvenile courts operate under a different philosophy than adult courts, where the emphasis is often on punishment. Key features of the juvenile court system demonstrate this focus.

It’s a well-established fact that children’s brains are still developing, particularly in the areas related to impulse control and decision making. This is why they may struggle to understand the long term consequences of their actions compared to adults. Studies have shown that complex legal proceedings can be overwhelming for young people, hindering their ability to participate effectively.

Research consistently demonstrates that juvenile justice systems emphasising rehabilitation achieve significantly lower recidivism rates compared to punitive approaches. Juvenile courts, with their focus on addressing underlying issues and providing support tailored to young offenders, contribute to these favorable outcomes. By addressing root causes such as family instability, poverty and mental health challenges, rehabilitation programmes reduce the likelihood of repeat offences among juveniles.

Investing in rehabilitation programmes for young offenders is not only more humane but also more cost effective in the long run. By providing access to counselling, education and vocational training, juvenile courts can equip youth with the skills and support they need to overcome challenges and lead successful lives. This proactive approach reduces the likelihood of re-offending and saves taxpayers money by preventing future crimes and reducing the burden on the criminal justice system.

Adults in the court system can be intimidating figures for children. Studies indicates that children often find the court system daunting due to the presence of adults, which can increase their stress and anxiety. However, data have demonstrated that a more supportive and age appropriate setting, such as a juvenile court, can significantly alleviate trauma and foster greater cooperation among young individuals. By creating an environment that caters to their unique needs and experiences, juvenile courts promote a sense of fairness and empower children to participate more actively in legal proceedings.

Juvenile courts provide opportunities for young offenders to learn from their mistakes and develop positive behaviours. Through counselling, educational programmes and community service, juvenile court systems aim to instill accountability and foster personal growth. By emphasising rehabilitation over punishment, these courts offer young individuals a chance to turn their lives around and become productive members of society. This approach not only benefits the individuals involved but also contributes to building stronger, more resilient communities.

Addressing a critical gap

Sri Lanka’s decision to extend the reach of its juvenile justice system is a crucial step towards addressing a critical gap in how it treats young people who come into conflict with the law. Here’s how this amendment tackles the serious drawbacks of the previous approach:

  • Reduced rehabilitation: Juvenile systems should be designed to address the unique developmental needs of adolescents through age-appropriate rehabilitation programmes. These might include anger management, cognitive behavioural therapy, substance abuse treatment and vocational training. Instead of being written off, young offenders are offered tools to change their trajectories, learn from their mistakes and develop into responsible adults, reducing the likelihood of re-offending.
  • Increased trauma: Juvenile facilities are ideally designed to minimise the risk of violence and abuse, creating a more secure and less intimidating environment compared to adult prisons. This fosters trust and allows for focus on treatment rather than mere survival. Protecting young people from trauma is crucial for their healthy development. Exposure to violence in adult facilities can exacerbate existing mental health issues and create new ones, undermining rehabilitation efforts.
  • Missed opportunities: Juvenile courts usually recognise that factors like poverty, lack of education, family instability or mental health challenges often contribute to youth offences. Addressing these is key to stopping the cycle of crime. Juvenile systems connect youth with specialised social workers, counsellors and educational services to help them overcome obstacles, develop coping skills, and gain access to opportunities for a better future.
  • Negative long term impact: Studies consistently show that rehabilitation focused juvenile justice systems lead to lower re-offending rates. This translates into fewer victims, less crime and overall safer communities. Reduced recidivism lessens the financial burden on the justice system and society. Taxpayer money is better invested in prevention and rehabilitation rather than repeated incarceration. Successfully rehabilitated youth become productive members of society. They can contribute to the workforce, strengthen families and create a ripple effect of positive change for generations.

Although it took a considerable amount of time, a provision within the Children’s Ordinance that allowed for the use of corporal punishment against children has also been successfully removed in the latest amendment. CSOs and child rights activists have been advocating for the ban of corporal punishment against children and although there are many supporters of the cause, there are also doubters as well. This is due to the fact that in Sri Lanka it is a common myth that a child disciplined without good smacking is like a curry that hasn’t been stirred well; it doesn’t come out as well as it could.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is a landmark treaty ratified by almost every country in the world, including Sri Lanka. It outlines fundamental rights that every child deserves including protection from harm, access to education and the right to be heard. The UNCRC specifically addresses the issue of juvenile justice. It emphasises the importance of rehabilitation, separate justice systems for minors and the use of detention only as a last resort. By extending its juvenile justice system to cover all children under 18, Sri Lanka signals its commitment to these global principles.

The amendment brings Sri Lanka closer to realising a system where every child, regardless of their circumstances, is given an opportunity for rehabilitation and a positive future. However, success hinges on the effective implementation of the law. Investing in training, resources, and support services for the juvenile justice system will be key in ensuring the ordinance’s full potential is realised.

Judges, law enforcement personnel, social workers and staff within the juvenile system must have in-depth training on the updated law, child development principles and rehabilitation focused practices. Adequate funding is crucial to ensure juvenile facilities are safe and well equipped, rehabilitation programmes are well staffed and young people have access to social services upon release. The success of the amendment may depend on addressing other systemic issues within the justice system, such as overcrowding, understaffing or delays that could hinder its impact.

No two young offenders are the same. Effective programmes assess a youth’s specific risks and needs. A tailored treatment plan might address issues such as anger management, substance abuse, educational gaps, family conflict or the development of healthy coping skills. Rigorous data collection on recidivism rates among youth passing through the updated system will be key to measuring its success and identifying areas for improvement. Tracking other indicators such as access to education within juvenile facilities, successful reintegration rates and the reported wellbeing of children will provide a holistic picture of the ordinance’s true impact. This is the most crucial aspect of the ordinance, as it determines its effectiveness in bettering the lives of children. Sri Lanka is known for having inadequate facilities when it comes to juvenile detention centers or homes. Furthermore, awareness among practitioners must be raised regarding the new act.

This amendment has the potential to position Sri Lanka as a leader in juvenile justice reform in the region and beyond. Upholding and investing in this reform should be a priority across successive governments. The Ministry of Children and Women’s Affairs, the justice system, educators, social services and NGOs must work together for a seamless and supportive system. Learning from other nations with successful child focused justice models and sharing Sri Lanka’s progress will benefit both the country and the global fight for children’s rights.