Officials from the ministries of interior, social affairs, and justice met with NGOs on Friday to discuss the latest draft of a juvenile justice law that has been in the works for more than a decade and which would mean young offenders’ rights would be better protected, a Social Affairs Ministry official said Wednesday.
The draft is designed to help protect and preserve the rights of children who break the law and who are currently dealt with based on articles in the general Penal Code. It would also, in theory, keep minors convicted of misdemeanor offenses out of the country’s already overcrowded prisons.
“We had the meeting on the 14th [February] to discuss people’s comments while the law is still with us,” said Kong Chhan, deputy general director of the Social Affairs Ministry’s technical affairs department.
“According to the draft law, children who commit minor crimes would be allowed to stay in their communities under conditions set by the court, and a watcher would be assigned by the court to monitor the child’s behavior,” he added.
The age of criminal responsibility in Cambodia is 14, but without a juvenile justice law and separate juvenile prisons, young offenders are often incarcerated with adults.
According to rights group Licadho, which monitors 18 of the country’s prisons, there are 276 minors currently incarcerated nationwide, 17 of whom are girls.
“We do not want to put children in jail. Putting children in jail would be the last choice,” Mr. Chhan said.
In August 2013, the Court of Appeal issued new guidelines on how prosecutors should handle minors’ cases, with a focus on alternative punishments as opposed to incarceration among adults.
Ith Rady, a secretary of state at the Justice Ministry, said the law would likely be sent to the Council of Ministers within the next six months.
“We are still thinking about where to place the minors, as we do not want to put children in jail as adults,” he said. “We still are considering if we should create a new place to place the children.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project, has long been calling for the establishment of a dedicated juvenile system.
He said that while the quality of this draft law is a concern, “it is better to have a law than not have a law.”