Insights and Analysis

Frustrated, Indonesians Demand Changes in Juvenile Justice System

February 1, 2012

By Leopold Sudaryono

After a series of reports emerged across the archipelago in recent weeks of children being arrested and prosecuted for petty crimes, Indonesians are raising questions about the state of juvenile justice in the country. The first was a confounding case that resonated around the globe: a 15-year-old boy from Central Sulawesi was incarcerated and tried last month after a police officer accused him of stealing a pair of used flip-flops worth about $3. Claims emerged that the boy was badly beaten by police during interrogation, and the officer who reported the minor was formally punished. The case galvanized the Indonesian public, and infuriated citizens collected over a thousand of pairs of sandals and dumped them on the steps of police stations across the country.

Days later, news surfaced of a teenager from West Timor who was put on trial for stealing bouquets of flowers from his aunt, and a Balinese teenager who was tried for stealing a wallet containing Rp. 1,000 (around 10 cents). The cases prompted similar outrage and hatched wry campaigns from a frustrated public, with citizens gathering flowers and coins to mock law enforcers for their heavy-handedness.

Juveniles in Indonesian prison

Juvenile inmates wait to be inspected at Indonesia's Tangerang Juvenile Prison, located just outside Jakarta. The prison is considered to have the best rehabilitation program and most spacious facilities for young detainees in Indonesia. Photo: Leo Sudaryono.

Sadly, such cases are not uncommon here. If you are a child over the age of eight, are Indonesian or just happen to be in Indonesia, and take someone’s property – intentionally or not – and are then reported to the police, there is a high chance you will be prosecuted. According to UNICEF, around 80 percent of children over age eight who were reported to police ended up being tried, with 91 percent of them spending between three months to three years behind bars. Today, there are 5,515 child inmates in Indonesia, 85 percent of whom are in adult detention facilities.

Despite these figures, Indonesian law does offer some protection for children. After ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, Indonesia adopted a special law on juvenile justice in 1997. The law provides for separate court proceedings and some additional post-adjudication stages for children in conflict with the law. But the law contains two major defects, as practitioners and scholars have pointed out.

First, it fails to regulate the pre-adjudication process, when children may be arrested, detained, or have charges pressed against them by the police. In most cases, children – whether guilty or not – are detained in cells alongside adults, and interrogated by police who are not properly trained to deal with minors.

Torture or ill-treatment to extract information is “routine practice,” said UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak in his 2008 report on Indonesia, and it is thought to be commonly used by detectives when interrogating minors. In a particularly gruesome recent case, two boys arrested on charges of stealing a mosque collection box and a motorcycle allegedly hanged themselves while in police custody. Their parents claimed the boys’ bodies bore clear signs of torture, and the National Human Rights Commission is now reviewing autopsy results.

In most juvenile cases in Indonesia, children are not accompanied by legal counsel, let alone a trained social worker who could minimize harm during the investigation and prosecution process, as well as promote social reintegration instead of incarceration at sentencing.

A list of juvenile detainees in the “Wisma Delima” block at Tangerang Juvenile Prison

A list of juvenile detainees in the “Wisma Delima” block at Tangerang Juvenile Prison. The block has a capacity of 40, and now hosts 29 minors: a rare situation in Indonesia, where prisons operate at an average 40 percent over capacity. Photo: Leo Sudaryono.

The law’s second major defect is the very low minimum age – eight years – at which children can be formally prosecuted and imprisoned. At these very young ages, crimes tend to be minor – for instance, a recent study by the University of Indonesia’s Center for Research on Child Protection found that 53 percent of crimes committed by minors involved petty theft, defined as goods worth less than $12. Children who are incarcerated are at a heightened risk of physical and psychosocial health concerns, in addition to risk of becoming further isolated from society. Despite this, Indonesia’s justice system continues to mandate punishment, not rehabilitation.

The problems are not simply a result of poor legislation. A 2002 Law on Child Protection obliges the government and other state institutions to provide special protection to children in conflict with the law. However, since the law does not elaborate on the term “special protection,” it has not been effective in binding law enforcement agencies to use the law to promote the best interests of children.

Recognizing the deficiencies in the 1997 law, a new bill on juvenile offenders was submitted last year to Parliament, and recent events have sparked a renewed push for its passage. The bill covers all stages of the justice process and uses principles of restorative justice to guide cases involving juveniles from start to finish, including rehabilitation. More importantly, it increases the minimum age at which children can be tried to 12 years old, and would introduce mechanisms to make diversion, or out-of-court solutions, more effective. It is not flawless, but once enacted should significantly increase legal protection for Indonesian children in conflict with the law.

One hopes that revisions to the law can effect real change, but it will likely depend on orchestrated, hard work by agencies across the justice sector that have in the past not coordinated very well. For now, however, police can be sure that the public is watching, and is increasingly intolerant of abuses of power by the boys in brown.

Leo Sudaryono is The Asia Foundation’s law programs coordinator in Indonesia and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia, Washington DC
Related programs: Good Governance, Law and Justice
Related topics: Human Rights, International Development


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