Status offences should not be dealt with by the justice system

Dear Editor,

Recently in at least two of our daily newspapers the CEO of the Rights of the Child Commission (RCC) voiced several concerns that the commission had with our juvenile justice system. Interestingly some of the concerns mentioned are the same as those which have been articulated publicly on numerous occasions by the hard -working commissioners, Ms Hooper and Ms Cole. Two of these concerns are particularly disturbing and offensive to citizens of conscience and demand our collective voice of disapproval.

First, the RCC requests that juveniles found wandering should no longer be brought before the juvenile court. Wandering is not a crime and therefore juveniles found wandering should not be made to appear in court whether the proceedings occur in an adult or juvenile court. Wandering is a status offence. That is, it is only an offence because it is committed by persons of a certain age; other status offences are truancy, running away from home, drinking alcohol, etc. The world’s emphasis on diverting juveniles away from the criminal justice system when possible, and extracting status offences from the justice system are easy positions to embrace. There are several reasons for this emphasis on diversion. In the case of Guyana two of these reasons should be of particular interest.

One reason is that too frequently young people found guilty of minor offences are sentenced to do time at one of our correctional institutions (which one they are sent to is influenced by their age and the seriousness of the offence). An immediate negative impact of this is that maintaining correctional institutions carries a steep cost which must be met by taxpayers. The other reason is that studies in the developed world have concluded that a youth’s incarceration is a greater predictor of recidivism than possession of a weapon, gang membership or poor parental relationship. Indeed, in many third world countries juveniles guilty of status offences are referred to as neglected children (the term delinquent is reserved for juveniles guilty of criminal acts) and are therefore immediately on being detained passed to a community based rehabilitation agency. The tendency in Guyana to have such children taken into custody at police stations and brought before the court for non-criminal behaviour is unacceptable, embarrassing and nonproductive.

My second concern grows out of the RCC’s revelation that in Guyana juvenile offenders do not have the right to counsel. The right to due process seems to demand that this right to counsel be strictly observed. Indeed, in Guyana, as is in most countries, an adult charged with committing a felony is afforded counsel if he/she cannot afford one, in adherence to his/her right to due process. The argument justifying this right in the adult court is that if guilty the adult offender is likely to lose his/her right to liberty and freedom. Thus, such persons must be afforded all reasonable assistance in their attempt to protect this sacred right. Now, if accused adults need such assistance at court, since their freedom is at stake, how much more in need of same is a juvenile who also stands to lose his/her freedom if found guilty of a mere status offence?

The RCC tells us that 70% of the juveniles at present in the New Opportunity Corps are there for having committed the non- criminal offence of wandering. Some of them might have been thirteen when the court made its decision to have them institutionalized. I guess there is the possibility that they can be there until they are 18 years old. This means that for 5 years they can be denied their freedom without right to due process and after not having committed a crime. This is child abuse in a most ugly and detestable form, and the motivation to incarcerate young offenders for petty violations needs to be examined and understood.

Editor, economic concerns have a long history of influence on how we treat juveniles. In the early days of the industrial revolution to satisfy the needs of factories, children worked as adults. In fact, they were considered adults in miniature and were therefore subjected to the same treatment as adults in the workplace and by the justice system which served the interest of big business. In time, as the growth in technology led to a reduced need for children in the workplace coupled with the coming of age of the social sciences, we began to understand the process of brain maturation and the needs of children. These combined to influence our concept of the age of responsibility and have led to the outlawing of child labour. These developments forced the justice system to develop a separate system of justice for dealing with juvenile offenders. Today, with economic concerns playing a reduced role in influencing how the justice system deals with young offenders, political concerns have taken their place as the main motivator.

We saw in the 1990s how elevated levels of crime in the USA affected politics. Citizens in states with relatively high levels of crime were voting incumbents out, in favour of fresh faces with the hope new officials could do what their predecessors failed to do ‒ bring down the crime rate. Out of fear of losing their office politicians began to put pressure on the states’ criminal justice systems, accusing police and courts especially of being too soft on criminals.  The justice system responded by sentencing offenders to long periods of imprisonment for minor infractions as part of what became known as the ‘get tough on crime’ approach. A similar situation developed in Guyana. Crime was high and citizens demanded that government do something, so the police began arresting young citizens for all sorts of petty crimes and the courts responded, incarcerating young offenders for the most trivial of offences. While the behaviour of the justice system satisfies our anger and at least momentarily gives us a false feeling of safety, it does much more harm than good.

Institutionalization rarely has a beneficial effect on offenders, no matter how good our intentions. Studies have confirmed that youths who have spent time at correctional institutions are more likely to become adult criminals than those who have never been institutionalized. This reality should make those responsible to vigorously and urgently seek to identify alternative ways of dealing with juvenile offenders and particularly those guilty of status offences.

Today it is widely accepted that programmes that have known success when dealing with juvenile offenders have been those that have the following characteristics: (a) Treatment occurs at home or near home; (b) service is delivered in a culturally respectful manner; (c) treatment is built around the youth and family strengths; and (d) a range of services and resources is delivered to the youth, as well as their families.

Editor, I understand that a new juvenile justice bill is soon to be presented to parliament. Let us hope that some of my suggestions would find a place for consideration and there would be less use of the justice system for adjudicating matters concerning juveniles. As a nation, we must learn from the mistakes and successes of others as we seek to do the best we can for our children.

Yours faithfully,

Claudius Prince

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