We are writing to express our profound concern about legislative amendments lowering the age of criminal responsibility and urge you to take immediate steps to repeal them. If the amendments go into force as planned on July 1, Georgia risks flouting its international legal obligations and causing irreparable damage to the lives of children.

On 23 May 2007 a set of amendments were adopted to three laws, lowering from 14 to 12 the minimum age of criminal responsibility for children for certain crimes (premeditated murder, including under aggravated circumstances; intentional damage to health; rape; most types of robbery; assault; and possession of a knife).

The amendments contravene a UN recommendation that states not lower the age of criminal responsibility for children. In its General Comment of 9 February 2007 on Children’s Rights in Juvenile Justice the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors states’ compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), explicitly stated that countries “should not lower their minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12,” and has encouraged states to progressively increase the age of criminal responsibility.

When the amendments to Georgian legislation were proposed, we and others urged their withdrawal, citing in addition well known decisions in the European Court concerning fair trial issues. When they were nevertheless adopted, Georgia undertook to develop a proper juvenile justice system for children aged 12 and 13 who are in conflict with the law. Some progress has been made in this regard, with the assistance of international partners and Georgia’s civil society, for example, training of a number of judges and legal aid lawyers, commitment to a small number of juvenile probation pilots. However, Georgia is far from having created a juvenile justice system capable of ensuring that children with the maturity of a 12-year-old receive a fair trial and are sentenced in accordance with the principles of youth justice and requirements of the ECHR. It is not yet able fully to meet its current obligations towards children aged 14 to 17 who come into conflict with the law.

Supporters of the amendments have often cited low ages of criminal responsibility in other European countries to justify lowering the age of criminal responsibility in Georgia. However those countries with a low age are both in a minority of European countries and under substantial pressure to raise the age of criminal responsibility. For example, in 2006 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reprimanded Ireland for lowering its age of responsibility. Moreover, while neither the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the Beijing Rules) nor the CRC are prescriptive about a particular age, the Beijing Rules provide that the age of criminal responsibility ‘shall not be fixed at too low an age level, bearing in mind the facts of emotional, mental and intellectual maturity’. These principles clearly advocate an age of criminal responsibility at the higher end of the scale and it is inconsistent with them to provide different ages for different crimes.

The consequences for a child are also vastly different when a country does not have in place a large range of services to avert custody, such as social services, non-criminal institutions, and methodologies and resources for individual risk and needs assessment. It is only when such services are available that a state can meet the requirement of Article 37 (c) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child be used 'only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.' In addition to the inconsistency with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is a serious issue as to whether lowering the age of responsibility to 12 will be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Despite Georgia’s efforts to redress years of stagnation and neglect, for example in the field of child welfare, deinstitutionalization and development of the institution of the social worker, it will still take a long time before Georgia is able to guarantee that it can deliver the necessary preventive and protective steps with regard to 14 to 17-year olds. This places them, and even more so 12 and 13-year olds if the above mentioned legislative amendments become effective, at risk.

We urge that the May 2007 amendments be repealed, and that strategies and action plans that had envisaged the incarceration of 12 and 13-year olds be amended accordingly. We suggest that, instead, resources be devoted to further study of the extent of serious criminal risk currently posed by children in Georgia; international best practice on addressing crime by children; and further development of social support and other preventive services appropriate to Georgia’s culture and conditions as well as to its responsibilities.

The undersigned are willing to do everything that we can to support the Government in such a mission.

(Note: listed in alphabetical order by Georgian titles)

Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre (HRIDC)
Mkurnali Association
Women in Business Association
Georgian Young Lawyers Association
Global Initiative in Psychiatry – Georgia
Institute of Democracy
Democracy and Civil Development Association (DCDA)
EveryChild – Georgia
Zaliko Kikodze Fund
Caucasus Women’s Network (CWN)
Union – “Safari – Family Free of Violence”
Article 42 of Georgian Constitution
Centre for the Protection of Constitutional Rights
Organisation “Child and Environment”
Organisation “Women and Health”
Georgian Public Health and Medicine Development Fund
Georgian Mental Health Association
NDOBA Association of Georgian Psychosocial Assistance
Georgian Society of Psycho-trauma
Women Employment Aid Association Amagdari
Tasso Fund (Women’s Fund and Memory Research Centre)
Women’s Club PEONI
Former Prisoners for Human Rights
Antiviolence Network of Georgia (AVNG)
Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims Empathy
Georgian Centre for Psycho-social and Medical Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (GCRT)
Penal Reform International
Human Rights Watch

Signed on behalf of the listed organisations,

Mary Murphy
Regional Director
Penal Reform International