One of the key questions at the first consultation on the draft Juvenile Justice Bill 2015 held at the Pegasus Hotel yesterday is whether the age of criminal responsibility should be raised from 10 years.
In his address, Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan said the consultation exercise will help policy-makers decide if the age should be increased to 12 years or even up to 16 years.
Two other consultations would be held in Berbice and Essequibo before the bill is taken to parliament.
He said status offences, which are in the existing Juvenile Offenders Act, are excluded in the draft Bill.
The Status Offences are those offences that criminalize behavioural problems of children such as wandering, vagrancy, truancy and runaways.
“These are acts which often are the result of psychological or socio-economic problems. It is particularly a matter of concern that girls and street children are often victims of this kind of communication,” Ramjattan said.
He pointed out too that, “These acts are not considered criminal when committed by adults. There is an inherent injustice there, and discrimination on the grounds of age.”
He mentioned that a number of children were sentenced to the New Opportunity Corps for the offence of wandering – with that figure being 13 as at August 2015.
“These offences must be abolished. We must enhance humaneness and equity by reducing the use of secure confinement. We must not betray young people by continuing the imposition of custodial sentences. This must only be an exercise of last resort, where nothing else is left to protect the public,” he noted.
Under section 5 (1); the Criminal Capacity Act, it is stated that: “It shall be presumed that no child shall be capable of or guilty of committing an offence unless the presumption is rebutted pursuant to an evaluation done in accordance with subsection (4),” which speaks about the rehabilitation, education, reintegration of the juvenile in the community.,
Marianne Flach, UNICEF representative for Guyana and Suriname, told the gathering that was made up of representatives from the Child Care & Protection Agency, the Rights of the Child Commission, the police force and the Guyana Bar Association, among other stakeholders, that “the current age of 10 years does not augur well for children on the whole.”
She said that, “For UNICEF, the question of minimum age aims to protect adolescents from making choices and/or from taking responsibility for actions that they do not have the capacity to comprehend the full consequences of.”
Therefore, she said, UNICEF “recommends that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is over 14, and continues to be increased so that all children and adolescents under 18 in contact with the law enjoy the protection of the juvenile justice system in line with international standards.”
She said too: “Crimes are seen to be offences when committed by children, but not so when committed by adults.”
A 12 year old girl was recently charged with murder and questions have been raised about conditions under which she is being kept and whether she has access to counselling and family members.
Ramjattan also said that government wants to see an Act which reflects a modern philosophy of juvenile justice, one that strengthens the justice system and makes it responsive to them and their situation.
Moreover, he said, “We want to see an Act which provides a framework where professionals are in the forefront supporting juveniles rather than police and prison wardens.
The minister said too: “We want to minimize the harsh punishment meted out to our young offenders which then stigmatize them for life. We want to maximize their education, their rehabilitation and their reintegration into society.”
He added that there is also the need for effective alternatives to prison and that jails and secure confinement are not the places where the substantial majority of young people who have committed offences should be.
According to him, “In this day and age we have to provide a humane alternative to incarceration for the young law breakers. This certainly will assist in helping them avoid falling deeper into a life of crime, and helping our country from becoming a jailhouse nation.
The previous government had been strongly criticised for the way juveniles had been incarcerated at the New Opportunity Corps on the Essequibo Coast.
Ramjattan was proud that the Draft Bill makes provision for a humane alternative, referred to as ‘diversion’ in Part 2, Clauses 6 to 12 particularly, among others. It means diverting the juvenile away from formal Court procedures to informal procedures and includes restorative measures to deal with a juvenile alleged to have committed an offence.
Clairmont Pompey, a social worker attached to the Juvenile Holding Centre, spoke about the importance of the bill, which gives the judiciary, the police, social service agencies and holding facilities clear guidance when dealing with juveniles.
Among the recommendations made at yesterday’s consultation were the need for: a juvenile court, a juvenile justice committee with provisions for a presence in all of the regions, mediation to prevent court procedures and diversion programmes in each region.
It was also recommended that the University of Guyana should start offering programmes in psychology and psychiatry to help with social problems and the need to expose children to opportunities such as the creative arts.