What is justice?

What is justice?

Understanding the terminology of justice for children

There are two forms of justice: traditional justice, which takes many forms, and modern justice, which we will discuss in this focus.

Traditional Justice

Tradition refers to customs (social habits), which are just as important as national laws, as they stem from ancient beliefs that are still widely practiced.

Traditional justice systems are based on ancient, small, self-regulating societies which had to adapt themselves to a modern state and justice system during colonization. Each country adapted in a very different way. Some traditions are officially recognized by the government; others are not. Today, these systems still make up the majority of judicial systems for many developing countries. In Sierra Leone, for example, almost 85% of the population relies on the laws of old customs.

The main goal of these justice systems is to maintain peace and harmony in local communities (i.e. villages). As the affected population all lives together, traditional justice often favors conflict resolution by reparation instead of by punishment.

However, human rights, much less children’s rights, are usually not taken into account in such cases. Some traditional justice systems discriminate harshly against one part of the community, usually women and children. Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted on how children are treated by these systems.

Modern Justice

Modern justice, or State justice, comprises numerous steps to right the wrong done by someone who has broken the law. It begins when the police, or other people who guard the law, claim that a law has been broken. This step is generally followed by an investigation, with the goal of gathering evidence. The person suspected of having broken the law is then put to trial before judicial authorities, who decide whether or not that person is actually guilty. Finally, if a crime has truly been committed, decisions are made to right the wrong that has occurred.

Vocabulary of Justice

Law: Laws are the official rules which everyone must obey in order for everyone to respect each other and live together safely. They help people act with good behavior. Each country has different laws.

Infraction / Offense / Crime: An infraction occurs when a child does something which goes against the law or does not do something which the law requires him to do. This is also called breaking the law. Infractions can also be called offenses in certain cases (serious cases, such as burglary) or crimes (very serious cases, such as murder).

Accused: When strong proof exists that a child has broken the law, they are accused.

Arrested: A child placed under guard by the police, armed forces, correction services, or other security forces, is considered arrested for having broken or being suspected of breaking a law.

Temporary Detention: A child is in temporary detention when they are deprived of freedom (placed in prison) while waiting for judicial authorities to make a final decision about the case.

Charged: A child is charged with an infraction when the police or other judicial authorities make an official accusation of having committed a specific infraction.

Presumed innocent: Any child accused of having committed a crime is presumed innocent. This means that they should not be treated as a criminal before the justice system has officially found them guilty. The burden of proof rests on the justice system, not on the child to prove they are innocent.

Court: This is the place where an accused child, a victim, or a witness to a crime is brought to explain what happened and, if they are accused, to be judged. The court decides if the law has actually been broken and will choose what actions to take to right the wrong and to prevent a second offense.

Judge: The judge is the member of the court who ensures that the laws are respected, that the truth is sufficiently proved, and that the rules of the court of law are followed.

Trial: When a child is accused of a crime, the court comes together to study the facts of the case and to hear witnesses. The members of the court will then decide if the law has truly been broken and what will be done to right the wrong. This is called a trial.

Sentence: The court gives a sentence as the final decision on a guilty child’s case and chooses the punishment or other reparatory measures.

Extrajudicial Action: This is when a police officer or other judicial authority takes action without a trial or any court event. For example, a police officer who decides to release a child who has committed a minor infraction without bringing them before the court has acted extrajudicially.

Juvenile Delinquent: This is a child who has been accused or proven guilty of committing a crime.

Second Offense: This is when someone who has already committed an infraction breaks the law again.

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