A new report by the United Nations children’s rights experts should prompt Georgia to set the minimum age of criminal responsibility at not less than 14 years, Human Rights Watch and Penal Reform International said today. Georgia should repeal legislation that lowers it to 12 years.

On June 6, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed “deep regret” about a law adopted last year lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 14 years to 12 years. In its Concluding Observations on Georgia, the committee urged the Georgian government to reinstate 14 years as the minimum age.

“This report is a crucial voice against lowering the age of criminal responsibility in Georgia,” said Giorgi Gogia, Caucasus researcher at the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “The committee’s call for reform underlines the urgent need for a proper juvenile justice system for children in conflict with the law.”

The conclusions are the outcome of a May 2008 review by the committee - which monitors states’ compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child - of Georgia’s third periodic report on its compliance with the convention.
The conclusions welcomed some legislative and programmatic measures taken by Tbilisi, including adoption of new laws and the Action Plan for Child Care, but also expressed regret that “some of its concerns and recommendations have been insufficiently or only partly addressed.”

On May 23, 2007, a set of amendments were adopted to three laws in Georgia, lowering from 14 years to 12 years the minimum age of criminal responsibility for children for a number of crimes, including premeditated murder, intentional damage to health, rape, most types of robbery, and possession of knives.

The committee expressed its deep regret over these amendments. It strongly urged the Georgian government to “reinstate as a matter of urgency, the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 14 years,” to be in compliance with one of the Committee’s general comments (guideline for interpreting the convention). The comment explicitly urges states “not to lower their minimum age of criminal responsibility to the age of 12,” and encourages states to progressively increase the age of criminal responsibility.

When the amendments lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility were adopted, Georgia pledged to develop a proper juvenile justice system for children aged 12 and 13, and indeed all children who are in conflict with the law. This transformation into a new justice system was to be completed by July 1, 2008, when the law reducing the age of criminal responsibility enters into force. Human Rights Watch and Penal Reform International note that some progress has been made in this regard, including training of a number of judges and legal aid lawyers and a commitment to a small number of pilot programs for juvenile probation. However, Georgia is far from having created a juvenile justice system capable of ensuring that children, including those with the maturity of a 12-year-old, receive a fair trial and are sentenced in accordance with the principles of juvenile justice.

The Committee urged Georgia to establish juvenile courts and appoint juvenile judges, as well as to provide adequate training to all professionals involved in the juvenile justice system. It also expressed concern at the absence of efficient mechanisms to ensure that imprisonment of children is used as a last resort and for the shortest possible period of time.

“It is only when such services are available that a state can meet its obligations on the rights of the child,” said Mary Murphy, director of Penal Reform International’s South Caucasus Office. “Rather than making plans to lock up 12-and 13-year-olds, the Georgian government should study best international practice on addressing and preventing crime by children. It should develop social support and other preventive services appropriate to Georgia’s culture and conditions and to its responsibilities.”