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Where is the justice for juveniles?

Published: 
Friday, June 16, 2017
Hazel Thompson Ayhe

I waited in vain for the outrage that should come from a civilised society, with the revelation that in our justice system, there are young men, who at 11 and 13 years of age, were charged with a crime, and after ELEVEN years, their cases have not yet begun.

These young men have been in detention half of their lives. Bruce Abramson, whom I met some years ago, when we were working on reforming Guyana’s child laws, wrote: “Juvenile justice is the unwanted child of child rights.” He was right. Our justice system is not child-friendly.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, to whom we must submit progress reports on implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), after reviewing numerous States reports, concluded that States still had “a long way to go in achieving full compliance with CRC” with regard to juvenile justice.

The Committee then formulated recommendations for the guidance of States.

One such was that States should “set and implement time limits for the period between the commission of the offence and the completion of the police investigation, the decision of the prosecution to bring charges against the child and the final adjudication and decision by the court”

The period recommended was six months.

Neither our Children Act nor the Family and Children Division Act includes time lines for hearing of children’s cases.

Even without legislation, magistrates can seek to manage their courts and impose on prosecutors and defence counsel, strict time lines for trial of juvenile matters.

While juveniles cannot suffer the ultimate penalty in cases of murder, there have been cases where juveniles charged with other serious offences, had their cases heard, after they became adults.

That resulted in their receiving penalties as adults, even when, in the interim, they had reformed their lives. Where is the justice in this?

Apart from our predominantly punitive culture, and our lack of appropriate laws, a major problem, giving rise to this sorry state of affairs, is the lack of training of judicial officers, prosecutors and defence counsel in child rights principles, and especially, in the international standards and norms in juvenile justice.

The Committee has consistently recommended such training for judicial officers, Parliamentarians, lawyers, and other professionals involved in juvenile justice, to no avail.

Juvenile justice principles do not form part of any of the courses on the syllabus of regional law schools, so are not generally known.

The CRC requires that our laws, policies, principles and practices be in accord with these international principles.

Over the years, unlike what obtains in other Caricom countries, requests from prosecutors and magistrates to attend training in this area have, inexplicably, been denied.

Juvenile justice is a specialist area, requiring training and a particular child-sensitive temperament.

I have been pleased to see a few magistrates do exceptionally well, despite the challenges.

Unless all magistrates are trained, however, justice for juveniles will depend on the luck of the draw.

An important principle of the CRC and related international juvenile justice instruments is that juvenile cases must be dealt with without delay. A child’s perception of time is different from an adult’s.

Lengthy periods in detention impede a child’s right to growth, development and education and may result in irreversible psychological damage.

The greater the time between the commission of the offence and the penalty, the less able is the child to link the punishment with the offence with the consequence that its impact on future behaviour is reduced.

The longer a child is in detention, the more difficult is reintegration. I recommend the inclusion of such a provision in our laws.

Even if we think it unrealistic, at this time, to include strict time limits, like Uganda, we can, at least, follow the lead of some OECS States and include a statement of principle that “all procedures pursuant to the provisions of our children’s hearings shall be conducted in a timely manner.”

I also strongly recommend that we institute restorative justice, which treats children in conflict with the law in a manner which fosters reintegration and assists the child to assume a constructive role in society.

Restorative justice has proved to be successful even with violent crimes.

It provides for a more expeditious determination of matters, can build the child’s respect for the rights of victims, create opportunities for accountability and reparation, reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation.

Minister Dillon, the Chief Justice said recently his hands were tied with regard to implementing restorative justice.

Will you and the Honourable Attorney General untie the Chief Justice’s hands?

Fr Harvey, whose hands and feet were tied, said we have to pay serious attention to restorative justice. What are we waiting for?