Cambodia quickly needs to establish a separate juvenile justice system to address the needs of the country’s high number of young people, who under current law face prosecution as adults, legal experts said.
Meeting in Phnom Penh last week, members of Legal Aid of Cambodia and visiting legal experts noted that Cambodia has an unusually large percentage of young people, with almost 1.5 million Cambodians, or nearly 12 percent of the population, between 15 and 19 years old.
And it is between these ages that people are most likely to commit crimes or rebel against social norms, criminologists say. However, at these ages they are also more open to rehabilitation—though none of the existing laws adequately protects children against the potential dangers of a judiciary aimed at punishing adult criminals.
“Children need special protection under the law. They learn the worst behavior in adult prison,” said Sherrie Brown, a law professor from the University of Washington, advocating the creation of a separate juvenile court.
The country’s judges rely on provisions in the Untac law that allow minors to be detained for as many as two months. In 1992, Cambodia adopted the UN’s Declaration and Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Neither law is adequate, said Ok Vandet, deputy director of Legal Aid of Cambodia.
A new criminal code is being considered, but it contains even harsher penalties for minors, who can be held for as long as a year in prison if they are older than 16 and charged with a felony, Ok Vandet said.
Legal Aid blasted Cambodian courts in a 1997 report for ignoring the needs of children and found that minors are exposed to various abuses in prisons. Even in the late 1990s Legal Aid recognized the problems Cambodia’s growing youth population would create for the judiciary and warned that nothing was being done to address those issues.
An estimated 10 percent of prisoners in Phnom Penh jails are under the age of 18, according to Legal Aid lawyer Huon Chundy.
Chuon Sunleng, deputy chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court, agreed that children have special needs that should be addressed by separate laws.
“It doesn’t matter whether the judicial system is American or French, we should have a separate one for children,” he said. “Just like a commercial judge should know accounting, a juvenile judge should be trained in child psychology.”
Cambodia has only one rehabilitation center for children, which is chronically overcrowded, according to court officials. NGOs that work to protect children have also criticized the center as providing poor nutrition and little training or rehabilitation.
The government plans to open five additional centers around the country, but lacks funding .