We made history with an exciting new chapter for Cambodian juvenile justice!
This Life is proud to announce that we have made history in Cambodia by supporting the first four children to complete their diversion orders and avoid a criminal record. This is a momentous achievement for us, comparable to the first moon landing, as it opens up new possibilities and opportunities for children in conflict with the law. This is a significant win for justice reform and child rights in the country, and we are honoured to have played a key role in it.
Diversion is an alternative to imprisonment for children who are accused of minor offences. It allows them to receive appropriate interventions and support in their communities, instead of being locked up in prison. Diversion not only protects children from the harmful effects of incarceration but also reduces the costs and burdens on the justice system. The idea of diversion is not new in Cambodia. In fact, the juvenile justice laws that were drafted in 2002 and finally passed by parliament in 2017 already provided provisions for diversion and other non-custodial measures for children. However, until 2022, not a single diversion case had been offered to any child in conflict with the law in the country despite those laws passed in 2017. This was due to various challenges, such as the need for more awareness, capacity, resources, and coordination among the relevant actors.
This Life has advocated for diversion since 2009 when we researched the challenges children face in conflict with the law and their families. We found that the recidivism rate for children in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, was 60% within 6 months and that many children were not returning home after serving their sentences. We also learned that some children were imprisoned for petty crimes like stealing an egg.
Based on our findings, we developed a program called This Life Beyond Bars, which provides vocational training, personal development, counselling, family reunification, and post-release support for children in prison. Through this program, we have worked with more than 2,000 children and reduced recidivism to under 2%.
Since 2017, This Life has collaborated with key government stakeholders, such as the Provincial Committee for Counter Trafficking, the Provincial Court, the Provincial Police Commissariat, the Military Police, and the Ministry of Social Affairs Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, as well as other legal NGOs, to provide training and refresher courses on juvenile justice law, child rights, child-friendly procedures, and diversion measures to more than 800 social actors, including judicial police officers, police, local authorities at all levels, and staff from other relevant NGO partners.
In 2021, we released another groundbreaking research report called No Place For A Child – Alternatives to Imprisoning Children in Cambodia, which highlighted the need for diversion and other non-custodial measures for children. We held our breath as we shared this report with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY). Within three months, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with them to pilot diversion programs in Siem Reap province.
In November 2022, we achieved our first breakthrough when a judge in Siem Reap approved the diversion orders for four children who were accused of theft. They were 14, 15, 16, and 17 years old at the time of arrest, and were held in pre-trial detention. They were referred to our diversion program, This Life Without Bars, by MoSVY’s social agent. We conducted family tracing, completed the Social Inquiry Report in collaboration with the government social agent, and submitted it to the judge for consideration.
The judge decided to offer the diversion orders, which required the children to participate in various activities, such as community service, life skills training, counselling, education, and family mediation. The orders also stipulated that the children had to abide by certain conditions, such as not committing any further offences, reporting to the social agent regularly, and respecting their parents and elders.
One of the children, who had already dropped out of school, received an order to complete vocational training, provided by This Life under our Edith House program. Edith House provides vocational training skills in several different areas, such as mechanics, electrical repairs, sewing, and hairdressing. We also have wrap-around services like social worker support, individually tailored personal development plans, and a drug counsellor. We also support graduates in finding employment or setting up their own small businesses. It’s a safe and effective alternative for judges to place children on diversion orders, and it makes a difference to every participant (and the team). Children can select which skill they are most interested in, and we onboard them through a detailed process to ensure they feel comfortable from the first day.
We are happy to report that the four children have successfully completed their diversion orders, which have now been closed by the judge. This means that they have no criminal record and can start a new chapter in their lives. We are proud of their achievements and grateful for their cooperation and commitment.
This is a historic moment for Cambodia, as it marks the first time that diversion under the juvenile justice laws has been implemented for children in conflict with the law. This results from the collaborative efforts of various stakeholders, including the government, the judiciary, civil society, and the communities. We would like to thank everyone who has supported us in this journey, especially MoSVY, the judge, the social agent, the families, and the children themselves.
Since the pilot program’s inception, nearly 200 child cases have been referred to This Life’s diversion program in Siem Reap. We have seen an incredible decrease in the number of children serving custodial sentences for minor crimes. We hope that this success story will inspire more provinces in Cambodia to adopt diversion and other alternatives to imprisonment for children. We believe that every child deserves a second chance and a better future. We will continue to work hard to make this vision a reality.
This is also very much a celebration of This Life’s work. We can only do this with the support of our funding partners. We first launched This Life Beyond Bars because of financial support from the Australian Aid program in 2010. Since then, we have had so much love and support from the donor community, and we intend to reach out to each and every one of them to thank them for being part of this journey. We want to ensure donors feel appreciated, but we also want to ensure this is just the beginning. Diversion is working well in Siem Reap. However, many provinces have still not utilised diversion orders for children, so there is so much more to do, and we can’t do it without continued support. If you know a donor who might be interested, please contact me directly and let’s continue the conversation.
This Life has taken one small step for children, but a giant leap for justice reform and child rights in Cambodia. By supporting the first four children in completing their diversion orders and avoiding a criminal record, we have made history and opened up new horizons for children in conflict with the law. This is a momentous achievement that we are proud to share with you. We hope that you have learned something new and valuable from our experience. If you want to learn more about our work and how you can support us, please visit our website, follow us on social media, and subscribe to our newsletter. We would love to hear from you and connect with you.
Thank you for reading and sharing our story. Together, we can make a difference!