At a high cost: a need to enhance children's punishment system and how it should look like

Kateryna Hryshchenko, analyst
Nika Kreidenkova, advocacy manager

This is a translation of an original piece published on JustTalk. Read in Ukrainian here.

Deprivation of freedom exacts a steep toll in every aspect, extending beyond just the incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. It not only isolates individuals but also fails to integrate them back into society, presenting a costly form of punishment for taxpayers.

Imprisonment for juvenile delinquents can swiftly extinguish their prospects for a promising future. For instance, when a teenager reoffends, judges are left with only two options: arrest or incarceration. This approach contradicts international standards of child-friendly justice, which advocate for the exceptional use of confinement for minors.

Legally, the curtailment of freedom entails confining convicted individuals to open-type correctional institutions, where they receive supervision and are obliged to work. Regrettably, open-type correctional facilities have yet to be established in Ukraine, leaving the experience of restricted freedom scarcely different from that of minimum-security correctional colonies with relatively lenient detention conditions.

In the comprehensive study conducted by the DEJURE Foundation titled "It's simpler that way" (2021), we highlighted that Ukraine faces a significant challenge in determining suitable punishments for juvenile offenders. The absence of alternative sentencing options, other than deprivation of liberty, stands out as a prominent issue within our criminal law framework. Consequently, in certain cases, judges are left with no choice but to resort to imprisonment, as the law fails to provide alternative avenues for punishment.

The focus on the deprivation of liberty neglects the crucial objective of rehabilitating minors and deterring future offences within our society. It is essential to recognise that adolescents aged 14-15 possess a greater potential for successful reintegration into society when compared to adults of age 50, thus underscoring the need for distinct punitive systems for children and adults.

We firmly believe that the criminal law system should exhibit flexibility, enabling both punishment and the resocialisation of offenders while simultaneously preventing the occurrence of new offences.

Is it so in practice, especially for such a sensitive group as minors?


The Criminal Code of Ukraine permits a limited range of punishments for minors, consisting of five options: fines, community service, correctional work, arrest, and imprisonment. However, not all of these options are suitable for minors. For instance, children generally lack personal funds and property, leading to fines being paid by parents in practice. Additionally, correctional work requires available employment, which children typically do not have.

Community service is widely utilised worldwide due to its potential for restorative and developmental aspects. It offers an opportunity to repair harm while aiding the community, enabling minors to acquire new skills and establish social connections. This form of punishment, as evidenced by the experience of other countries, can be tailored to meet the specific needs and developmental characteristics of minors, making it highly effective. Unfortunately, according to study conducted by the DEJURE Foundation, community service is practically non-existent in Ukraine due to insufficient infrastructure, limited options, and a lack of adaptation for children.

Arrest and deprivation of liberty can be imposed on minors, although international standards indicate that these measures should be employed as a last resort due to their limited effectiveness. Exceptions may be made for cases involving violent crimes with a low likelihood of correction and posing a significant danger to society. Notably, data from the United States suggest that the recidivism rate for sexually related offences committed by minors is significantly lower than that of adults.

However, the prevailing practice in Ukraine deviates from these standards, with imprisonment being the chosen punishment in 79% of cases. Judges often feel constrained in their sentencing options, either due to imprisonment being the sole viable choice or because of specific circumstances (such as the lack of employment opportunities for the child). While judges may occasionally opt for a lighter sentence than prescribed by law, doing so places an additional burden on them to justify such a decision. This hinders the effective application of the legal mechanism. Consequently, judges frequently opt for the path of least resistance, imposing punishment while ensuring that the child is not actually imprisoned. Remarkably, in 80% of cases involving deprivation of liberty, the convicted minors are released with probationary periods. Regrettably, this practice raises concerns about its effectiveness, as it may foster a sense of evading responsibility rather than accepting it. Such leniency can create a perception of impunity, thereby encouraging further violations.


Typically, once juvenile offenders are sentenced to imprisonment, they fade from the public eye. However, their lives continue, albeit within the confines of the Kremenchuk educational colony in the Poltava region (which, regrettably, recently suffered damage from shelling).

The geographical location of the colony exacerbates the issue of severed social ties for minors, as they are distanced from relatives or responsible adults who could serve as positive role models. Visits from individuals residing in remote parts of Ukraine or abroad are infrequent, making it challenging for minors to maintain meaningful connections. International practices have demonstrated the importance of having a supportive adult figure in the lives of children for successful resocialisation. Yet, within the colony, minors tend to form new social connections, primarily among fellow inmates.

Furthermore, experts highlight that the conditions of residing and studying within the colony do not facilitate the acquisition of essential life skills necessary for functioning in society. Basic tasks such as grocery shopping, cooking, securing employment, and finding housing remain elusive to them. Consequently, these children become ill-prepared for life in the broader society.

This situation can potentially serve as a catalyst for recidivism among juvenile offenders after they complete their sentences. The absence of appropriate reintegration measures may inadvertently encourage them to commit new crimes. Thus, the state inadvertently invests in perpetuating a cycle of criminal behaviour among this vulnerable group.


A person can bear criminal responsibility after reaching the age of 16. However, specific offenses can be prosecuted from the age of 14.

Nevertheless, minors aged 14-15 lack dedicated punishments under the law. In fact, the available options are even more limited, comprising only fines and imprisonment (with other potential penalties applicable from the age of 16). Curiously, crimes for which minors under the age of 16 can be held accountable encompass not only violent offences but also financially motivated ones, such as theft or robbery. Consequently, a situation arises where a child, for instance, can face imprisonment and carry the lifelong stigma of a criminal for the repeated theft of a simple item like a box of chocolates (as criminal theft currently begins at UAH 268).

Prior to attaining the age of criminal responsibility, educational measures with coercive elements can be applied to minors. However, most of these measures are restrictive in nature, such as limiting free time or placing the child under parental supervision. Measures that could potentially have a positive educational impact, such as the appointment of a tutor, are seldom implemented due to the absence of a proper framework for their execution. Therefore, their effectiveness is also questionable, as recognised by experts in the field of justice.

Consequently, it is evident that the system of punishment for minors fails to fulfill its fundamental objectives of reeducation and prevention, primarily due to the ineffective provisions of the law. This predicament not only undermines the pursuit of justice for victims but also denies minors the opportunity for rehabilitation while failing to address societal concerns for safety, even in cases involving non-violent crimes.


The adoption of draft laws 5617 and 5618 presents a potential partial solution to address the shortcomings in punishments for minors. These proposed laws aim to mitigate the punitive bias within the justice system and enhance the educational and restorative aspects. However, the fact that the head of the specialised parliamentary committee suggests sending them for government revision implies that their consideration is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Alternatively, another avenue would involve the development of a new draft law specifically tailored to address this issue. Without amending the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, a comprehensive resolution cannot be achieved. Consequently, the formulation and subsequent adoption of such a draft law would serve as a positive catalyst for the advancement of the punishment system, aligning it with international standards. Furthermore, it would contribute to the fulfilment of the objective outlined in the National Strategy for the Reform of the Juvenile Justice System until 2023. Given that the goals of this strategy have only been partially accomplished, it is evident that the aforementioned concerns will resurface in subsequent strategies, emphasising the need for further action.