Justice minister: Turkey to reform juvenile criminal laws

Justice minister: Turkey to reform juvenile criminal laws

Young children frequently face lengthy prison terms in Turkey for participating in illegal and violent rallies, mostly in eastern and southeastern parts of the country.

May 01, 2010, Saturday/ 17:10:00/ ERCAN YAVUZ
The number of crimes committed by minors has peaked in recent years, forcing Turkey to rethink the prosecution and trial of children. Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin has shared details of a reform package that will be made public next month with Today's Zaman in an exclusive interview.

The number of juvenile convicts in Turkey is currently 2,789, prompting the government to draft reforms not only concerning correctional facilities and juvenile prisons but also juvenile courts. Justice Minister Ergün says a reform package has been drafted by his ministry and will be referred to Parliament once talks and voting on the constitutional reform package are complete.

With the new legislation, a drastic transformation will take place regarding the trial of children as well as in how juvenile detention centers and prisons will be run, according to the minister. “We are building new juvenile correctional facilities where each child will have his or her own room. The children will spend their days getting an education and playing sports. We are creating an infrastructure that will prepare children for the future. The same model will be used in juvenile prisons. We will also make significant changes to the juvenile justice system and trials. There will be changes in the judges and the courtrooms. We will share the details with the public once the constitutional reform package is passed.”

Juvenile amnesty not on the agenda

Sadullah Ergin

Ergin said that discussion on whether a general amnesty would be issued for juvenile convicts, as suggested by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli on April 23, National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, was not on their agenda. He said a law regarding Kurdish children throwing stones at security forces during protests -- who are often given unreasonably long jail terms -- would be discussed along with the reform package on juvenile law. Although the public at large is uneasy about the often unjust sentences given to “stone-throwing children” as they are called, there have also been concerns that a legal amendment improving the situation of these children might help some other minors, such as Cem Garipoğlu, who allegedly brutally murdered his girlfriend when he was 17, or some adolescents in Siirt who raped two other children, aged 2 and 3, killing one of them. The Justice Ministry has no plans to declare an amnesty in which these and young perpetrators of other incidents that have attracted public outrage will be pardoned, Ergin said.

Robes of judges to change

The new package will make aim to minimize any handcuffing during court and trial procedures at juvenile courts. In addition to that change, judges and prosecutors serving in juvenile courts will abandon their black robes in favor of robes of another color that would seem less intimidating to children. The new courtroom outfits will be designed as per the views of child experts and fashion designers. The judges and prosecutors to serve in these courts will also be specially selected under the reform package.

According to information from the ministry, 4,773 minors appeared before a judge in 2002, 5,145 in 2003, 5,267 in 2004 and 5,846 in 2005. That number rose to a staggering 29,730 in 2006. This partly is owed to changes made in legislation that year that established new juvenile courts, but officials say there has also been an upward trend in juvenile crime. In 2007, 37,902 minors appeared before a judge, and 42,182 minors were brought before the courts in 2008. The upward trend continued in 2009 with 46,317 minors being tried in courts.

Ministry to double psychologists

In correctional facilities and juvenile prisons, six minors now share each room. With the new reform, every child will stay in a single bedroom, which will prevent them from being affected by the behavior of other children. Any contact between juvenile convicts and adult convicts will be strictly forbidden. No attempt by terrorist groups to influence juvenile convicts will be allowed with the new package.

The personnel employed at juvenile correctional facilities and prisons will be chosen from experts in the field. Currently, 11 psychologists, 119 social workers and 276 teachers are employed at correctional facilities for minors and young people. The number of social workers, psychologists and teachers will be doubled with the new package in order to facilitate the reintegration convicted minors into society.

According to a recent survey by the Justice Ministry, 111 of the 2,789 minors in correctional facilities and prisons do not now how to read and write. Among those who are literate, 281 have never gone to school. Eight-hundred-and-thirty-four have completed primary school. There are 399 middle school graduates and 58 high school graduates. The educational background of 1,116 of the child convicts is unknown.

Reintegration into society

There will be one teacher for every nine minors in a facility, and the teachers will be specially selected under the new package. The main purpose of the children’s education will be their reintegration into society. In addition to the Education Ministry curriculum, they will engage in various sports and cultural activities.

Currently, 113 out of the 2,789 convicted minors are being kept in special correctional facilities for minors. The rest are being held in special sections of adult prisons. With the reform, juvenile prisons will be completely separated from adult facilities.

The main reason for the reform is the sharp rise in juvenile crime in Turkey compared with a decade ago. According to numbers from the ministry, Turkey follows Ukraine -- where 4,639 minors are in prison -- as the country with the highest number of minors in prison. The United Kingdom follows Turkey with 2,742 minors imprisoned. Germany and Romania are next. Based on another criterion -- the ratio of convicted juvenile offenders to the overall population of convicts in prison -- Turkey follows Northern Ireland (5.2 percent) with its rate of 3.8 percent. United Kingdom follows Turkey with 3.1 percent.

Turkey has the second highest number of young people (aged 18-20) in prisons. The UK has 8,514 convicts in prison in that age group while Turkey has 8,397. Germany, where 5,443 young people are in jail, follows Turkey. These numbers are the main reason behind the juvenile prison reform, ministry officials note.

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