Recently, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a judgment in which it asked Poland to “stop the practice of detaining juveniles subject to correctional proceedings without a specific judicial decision,” a disastrous practice in which young suspects are jailed―often for months―while their alleged crimes are investigated.
The case of Grabowski v. Poland, which resulted in the European Court’s call for change, concerned a juvenile (17 years old at the time) who was arrested on suspicion of committing several armed robberies and placed in pretrial detention (schronisko dla nieletnich in Polish, or “shelter for juveniles”) for three months while his case was investigated.
Two days after the initial detention period was over, Grabowski’s lawyer filed a request for his immediate release, arguing that there was no further court order that could extend the period of detention. But the request was denied and Grabowski stayed in pretrial detention for another five months. When he was finally tried and found guilty, he was given a noncustodial sentence (two years of probation) and released immediately.
The United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty clearly state that juvenile cases must be expedited in order to minimize the time that young people are in pretrial detention. Moreover, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also recommends that competent authorities regularly review the legality of juveniles’ detention. Yet Grabowski spent eight months in a juvenile detention facility, without any further legal reviews.
The ECHR’s judgment in Grabowski v. Poland provides some measure of hope to the more than 300 juveniles languishing in pretrial detention in Poland. Poland should now follow the example set by recent changes implemented by the Republic of Georgia, which reduced the maximum period of juvenile pretrial detention from 60 to 40 days. (Even Georgia’s example is imperfect, since the widely recommended maximum term for juvenile pretrial detention is 30 days.)
Of course, Poland is far from the only country with a malfunctioning juvenile justice system. In the United States, the tragic story of Kalief Browder, a New York teen who killed himself after spending three years in pretrial detention, focused attention on this issue. In some Latin American countries, keeping juveniles in pretrial detention, often together with adults, is linked to an increased probability that these juveniles will become gang members. Similarly, in Africa it is quite common to find juveniles being detained with adults, even while pending trial, where they are exposed to violence from detainees and guards alike.
In the wake of Grabowski v. Poland, it is imperative that states take a second look at their juvenile justice systems, especially if they are seriously interested in decreasing reoffending and the negative mental and social consequences that detention has on juveniles.
Juan E. Méndez, the special rapporteur on torture, has called on states to develop “alternatives to the detention of children that fulfill the child’s best interests.” As stipulated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the extended pretrial detention of juveniles should be a seldom-used measure of last resort, not the sadly common practice it is today.