The Malta Independent 22 May 2019, Wednesday

Malta Has highest EU percentage of juvenile prisoners

Malta Independent Sunday, 21 August 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

New location for YOURS identified

Scott Grech

Malta has the highest rate of young offenders among its prison population, with 6.1 per cent of the 600-odd inmates at the Corradino Correctional Facility (CCF) falling under the EU’s definition of juveniles, according to an EU Justice Commission Green Paper launched recently in a bid to curb the rate of pre-trial detainees.

A spokesman for the Justice and Home Affairs Ministry highlighted, however, that Malta’s percentage is the highest in the EU mainly because the percentage also includes, unlike most other countries, inmates aged between 18 and 21, and who are serving time at the YOURS (Young Offenders Unit Rehabilitation Services) unit within CCF.

“Sending juveniles to prison only occurs after all other options are explored and persistent reoffending or breaching of condition occurs. There are various professionals from the fields of probation, social work, education, health and the juvenile court actively working together with juvenile offenders within the community,” the spokesman added.

Placing the YOURS section, which houses young offenders aged over 15, within the CCF has often been a bone of contention for several years, with critics arguing that the youth section should be taken out of CCF, and that similar facilities should be provided for young female prisoners.

The ministry spokesman stressed, however, that the ministry is looking at this option, “and has identified an existing edifice where to shift the YOURS section.

“The ministry is also exploring the possibility of setting up a unit for even younger offenders (under 18 years of age) of both sexes within the same structure, although the ministry will not be disclosing the location for the time being”.

George Busuttil, the director of Mid-Dlam Għad-Dawl, the NGO which lobbies for prisoners’ rights, welcomed the move, although he expressed hope that the “move won’t take too long to materialise. As is the norm in Malta, it could take years before the building permits are approved and the resources are found, so it could be a long and winding process. It might take 10 years to complete”.

In reaction, the ministry spokesman stressed that “although such a development would require the necessary planning permission, it certainly should not take as long as Mr Busuttil is suggesting”.

Malta with also one of the highest rate of pre-trial detainees

Besides the highest rate of juvenile prisoners in the EU, Malta also has the sixth highest rate of pre-trial detainees among its prison population, with some 35.2 per cent of inmates at CCF still presumably innocent till proven guilty.

Reducing the rate of pre-trial detainees would considerably reduce the problem of prison overcrowding, Mr Busuttil added, since the prison population has swelled considerably over the past few years and now hovers around the 600 mark, with almost half of the prison population of foreign nationality.

There have been cases, Mr Busuttil commented, where people have spent up to four years in prison since they couldn’t afford to pay or adhere to bail conditions, only to be cleared of their criminal charges later, rendering the time they spent in prison a waste.  

He added that the problem of overcrowding has escalated to the extent that there are 18 prison inmates sectioned in CCF’s Division 15, all of whom are African, who are all sleeping in bunk beds in one common room and have to make do with sharing one toilet and one shower cubicle between themselves.

The cost of housing a prisoner at CCF runs to around €60 to €70 per day.

Since detention conditions and periods vary widely between EU states, the European Commission, through a Green Paper which was presented by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding last June, is looking at creating cross-border EU criminal justice legislation in the field of detention.

A commission spokesman told this newspaper that until now, “National governments are solely responsible for detention issues and prison management. However, Europeans must have confidence that they will be treated to similar standards of protection no matter where they are in the EU.

“That’s why the Commission has designed a package of measures on procedural rights of suspected and accused persons that will assist in achieving the necessary mutual trust between judicial practitioners, while also taking into account the differences between the legal traditions and systems of the member states.

“These measures will cover the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, the right to information in criminal proceedings, access to lawyer or legal aid, the right to communicate while in detention and the protection for vulnerable suspects”.

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg, in particular, has long been critical of the excessively long periods of pre-trial detention and has criticised those EU states which have not established a legal maximum length of pre-trial detention.

“I have witnessed first-hand that conditions in remand prisons in many cases are sub-standard. Overcrowding is common and often even the basic rule that pre-trial detainees should be kept separate from convicts is not respected. The situation of these detainees is further aggravated by the indeterminate duration of their detention and uncertainty about the outcome of their detention and uncertainty about the outcome of the proceedings,” he says.

The consequences for pre-trial detainees are, in his words, harsh. “A recent study underlines the socio-economic impact of pre-trial detention: pre-trial detainees may lose their jobs, be forced to sell their possessions and be evicted from their homes. Even if the detainee in the end is found innocent, the mere fact that he or she has been in prison tends to be stigmatising”.

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