The juvenile justice system offers mainly punitive measures, but not enough restorative practices.
With punishments and institutionalization, our country often produces young people with persistent antisocial behavior, missing out on the years of growing up from child to adult as a time for adjustment.
Over 140 participants from various institutions, professional and civil communities gathered the legal discussion forum “LexTalks 2023: Crime and Punishment”, organised by the National Network for Children (NNC) and the Legal Aid Network of the NNC. The event took place on 30.11.2023 in the Auditorium of SU “St. Kliment Ohridski” with presentations and opinions in the discussion panels of judges, experts in restorative justice, experts from the “Child Crime” sector at the General Directorate of the “National Police”, lawyers, psychologists, non-governmental organisations, teachers and students of law, social pedagogy, etc. . LexTalks 2023 was opened by Dr. Borislav Ganchev, head of the political office of the Minister of Justice, Prof. Atanas Slavov.
Children’s aggression, anti-social behaviour and crime were the topics of focus in this one-of-a-kind legal discussion forum in our country. The event sought an honest answer to the question of how together – institutions and citizens – to address the problem of children in conflict with the law, often called “the most difficult” and “unsalvageable”, and how far the reform in children’s justice has come. The talks focused on discussing real cases and case studies of criminalisation, sanctioning, support and inclusion, the real stories, families and communities of these children.
Bulgaria continues to not carry out sufficiently effective prevention of child criminalisation , especially in vulnerable communities. While there are good models in place, the juvenile justice system does not sufficiently implement restorative practices involving the perpetrator, the victim, the family and the community. There is no synchronicity between the justice and social systems. With punishments and placement in institutional care, our country often produces young people with permanent antisocial behaviour, missing the years of growth from child to adult as the most beneficial time for re-education and socialisation.
Data from the Institute of Social Activities and Practices, presented during the forum, indicate that in 2022, juvenile offenders (14-17 years) numbered 3,343, with 868 convicted and 3 sentenced to educational measures 498. However, the number of convicted young people aged 18 to 24 jumped sharply – up to 5,394 in total. This is the trend not only for last year, but also for the last five. These figures show how ineffective our system is in working with children and young people to avoid further criminal activity. That is, until the age of 18, their criminalisation was not successfully registered and stopped, only after reaching adulthood, the state “sees” them for the first time, already treating them as an object of criminal repression.
Bulgaria adopted a concept for state policy in the field of justice for children in 2011. Two years later it also adopted a road map for its implementation, and 5 years ago the “Childhood without bars” initiative of the National Network for Children, the Institute of Social activities and practices and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Despite the adopted strategic documents and despite the initiative “Childhood without bars” gathering the support of nearly 13 thousand people from all over Bulgaria – there is still no reform in justice for children. The system does not offer sufficient restorative practices, does not meaningfully involve the families and communities of children at risk of criminalisation. There is no synchronisation between health, education, social and justice system. Bringing children to court should be a last resort, because with punishments and correctional homes, boarding schools and institutional care, our country often produces young people with persistent antisocial behaviour, missing the years of growing up from child to adult as the most beneficial for re-education and correction time.
“Committing crimes by children is itself a very serious problem and symptom and requires a very committed, responsible, professional intervention that includes both containment and support, because if there is an opportunity to stop the criminalisation of one person, it is in the age before majority.” – Prof. Neli Petrova, ISDP
“However, there is a lack of broad public discussion, a state vision for comprehensive reform is lacking. There is a lack of dialogue with the institutions and systems affected by such a reform. For example, the local commissions for combating anti-social behaviour fear that with the reform they will be closed, although it is proposed to reform them, not to close them.e. If we take public educators as an example, they continue to be municipal officials who, in not a small number of cases, write pro forma protocols for meetings held with children in conflict with the law, without having prior training and specialisation, without having sufficient support (including financial) and adequate monitoring.” – Georgi Elenkov, Legal Aid Network of the NNC
“Children are limited in their opportunities to protect themselves, to appeal against measures imposed on them and to leave the system altogether – an injustice that has already been emphasised several times by the European Court of Human Rights in several judgments against Bulgaria. Thus, he finds that the regime in the home for temporary placement of minors and minors is not appropriate because it treats child offenders worse than adults.” – Adv. Adela Kachaunova, Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
“The so-called “restorative practices”. Restorative practices are actually the process of enabling people to talk about their complicated relationships. Children talk about their complex inner world and what makes them take certain actions. There are many people around a restorative practice, there is a large network. It includes the closest family circle, the institutions, if the child or the person is institutionalised, local commission, probation service, experts from the “Child Protection” department, etc. And they are all involved in the recovery.” – Elena Evstatieva, restorative justice expert, part of “PF Bulgaria, Community for Reconciliation Justice”
At LexTalks 2023, the premiere of the two documentaries took place – “Children in conflict with the law” , which tells the personal story of Anna-Maria (a graduate of the two-year program of the Youth Network “Megaphone” of the NNC, passed through the carousel of institutions, and today a young woman ), and “The law in conflict with children” – with examples from the practice of experts who work with children and youth and their opinion on the question of how far the reform in children’s justice has come. The director of both videos is Petar Valchev, and the films were shot especially for the forum, thanks to the ENROLL project, supported by Dexis. The video “The weak reach out, the strong lend a hand” of the Organisation of Bulgarian Scouts and NNC was also broadcast.
Anna-Maria was present in the hall at LexTalks 2023 and shared from personal experience that there are things about child criminalisation that are not talked about enough or not at all. Among the “uncomfortable” topics for the institutions and all parties in the process is the fact how poorly young people and children are aware that they have rights (apart from obligations) and how no adult has the right to assign these rights. According to her, the principle “Know your obligations first, not your rights” is widely followed. A taboo topic is the violence that actually occurs in district administrations (both physical and mental) with the victims – minor children. The problem of drug addiction among children and young people is denied, as often overdoses of opiates or hard drugs (methamphetamines, etc.) are recorded as “accidental” binges or ingestion of chemicals. This, in turn, leads to turning one’s back on the problem and a complete lack of will to deal with this problem. There are no centres in our country that work with drug addicts under the age of 18, which practically means that addictions are “cultivated”.
“Nobody talks or thinks about a huge resource for working with institutionalised children and young people, namely other young people like me who have already been through the institutional hurricane and can help as mentors in prevention or recovery practices. The lack of training for people working with a wide range of people (regardless of the type of activity or institution) is also a problem, as well as there is a complete lack of training for staff and the exchange of good practices between organisations,” said Anna-Maria.
National network for children, as a union of over 130 civil organisations, human rights defenders, volunteers from all over Bulgaria, is the center and main driver of the expert dialogue related to the reform of children’s justice in Bulgaria. The NNC and the NNC Legal Aid Network promised the participants in the Hall that they will not give up before meaningful reform is implemented. And a reform that rests on a very wide palette of opinions, taking into account issues from fieldwork and perspectives, as gathered at LexTalks 2023. NNC continues to work to ensure audibility between civil organizations, experts, institutions, children in conflict with the law and law-makers, so that finally, 5 years after the end of “Childhood without bars”, a reform in justice for children and better prevention of the criminalisation of children in Bulgaria will be achieved.
Speakers at LexTalks 2023: Crime and Punishment were:
Judge Kalin Kalpakchiev , Sofia Court of Appeal, former member of the SJC and former chairman of the Union of Judges in Bulgaria;
Petar Petrov , chief inspector in the “Child Crime” sector at the Main Directorate “National Police”;
Yulia Georgieva , Center for Humane Policies” and Center for People with Addictions “The Pink House”;
Iva Boneva , Association for Shared Learning ELA;
Maria Doichinova , Center for the Study of Democracy;
Prof. Neli Petrova – Dimitrova , Doctor of Pedagogy, teacher of social work and social pedagogy at SU “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Chairman of the Management Board of the Institute for Social Activities and Practices;
Zvezdica Peneva-Kovacheva , director of the “Centre for Competences and Professional Training” Program at the Institute of Social Activities and Practices;
Lyubomir Krilchev , coordinator of “Violence” and “Access to Justice” programs at the UNICEF office;
Adv. Mariyana Evtimova , one of the founders and executive chairman of the “P.U.L.S” Foundation;
Elena Evstatieva , restorative justice expert, part of “PF Bulgaria – Community for Reconciliation Justice”.
The discussions were moderated by Georgi Elenkov – legal advisor of NNC and coordinator of the Legal Aid Network and Dr. Yulia Radanova – lawyer, chairman of the Board of the Institute for Mediation and Dispute Management.
The event was supported by Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”; USAID and Dexis – within the framework of the NNC “ENROLL” project; “Sibi” publishing house and “LawStore” publishing house.
A video of the event is available here: https://www.facebook.com/nmdbg/videos/1426112181310570
The documentary video “Children in conflict with the law”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFMFttAd2Ng
The documentary video “The Law in Conflict with Children”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITZopIzI5YA