The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and the NGO This Life Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) regarding “programmes to divert children away from prisons”.

The programme will attempt to intervene in the lives of youths who are in conflict with the law and give them an opportunity to change their ways through continuing education, vocational training and life skills.

The MoU was signed on November 22, but the programme will not be implemented until next year, according to a press statement released on November 24. This juvenile diversion programme will focus on reforming minors who are in conflict with the law and the sponsors said this will carry a wide range of benefits for the individuals, their families and their communities.

The press statement said the majority of 14-18 years old currently residing in Cambodian prisons are there due to accusations or convictions for minor non-violent offences like petty theft, drug use or selling small quantities of drugs to peers.

“Children are the future of our society and they need dedicated support and encouragement to play a valued and positive role in the community,” it said.

“If these children are not given the support they need during this early and formative crucial stage in their development, they will likely repeat the offence in the future as they drift away from their family and community ties.

The diversion programme aims to ensure that juveniles in conflict with the law have access to dynamic personal development support as an alternative to custodial sanctions.

“These methods will allow minors to continue their educations or receive vocational training and life skills. These are essential elements in providing hope for a job, career and legitimate income in their future,” it said.

This Life Cambodia executive director Billy Gorter said that for the past 12 years, his organisation has been implementing programmes that work with young people who are serving custodial sentences which have directly helped reduce recidivism rates down to below two per cent within six months post-release.

“However, we have always known that there were prevention-based opportunities that could help keep children stay out of prison in the first place. The collaboration between This Life and the [social affairs ministry] will enact provisions within the juvenile justice laws and provide alternative pathways away from jail,” he said.

According to Gorter, a body of evidence and several meta-reviews of the results of a large number of studies suggest that diversion is a much more practical and productive solution for children in conflict with the law than incarceration. Diversion achieves significantly lower rates of recidivism compared to formal court proceedings.

“Our approach has been overwhelmingly successful, with 86 per cent of programme participants finding jobs after their release. The recidivism rate dropped from 60 per cent to just two per cent for offences committed within six months after release,” the press statement said.

Touch Channy, spokesperson for the social affairs ministry, said the ministry will open a new juvenile rehabilitation centre for incarcerated minors in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district by year’s end.

The centre will divert juvenile detainees to this facility, which can accommodate more than 1,000 children.

However, he said that as a first step the ministry plans to send about 50 minors to the centre to begin the implementation of the diversion programme. By next year, the number of juveniles being transferred from prisons to the centre will increase to about 400 or more.

According to the General Department of Prisons, there are currently 1,449 juvenile detainees nationwide.