Earlier this month, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan tabled in Parliament, a bill that is expected to see a change in how juveniles at odds with the law are treated. Among the lofty aspirations included by the legal drafters and enunciated by Minister Ramjattan in his first reading of the Justice Juvenile Bill, are not recording juvenile convictions and raising the age of those considered juveniles to between 14 and 18 years so that anyone younger will be deemed not capable of committing a crime.
Child-rights activists, who have lobbied long and hard for the reform of the Juvenile Offenders Act, will no doubt see this as a step in the right direction. It is hardly the end of the road as regards treating minors in the right way; there is still a lot that needs to be done, much of which should have started already. Finances will be required to carry out many of these tasks, as well as changes in other linked areas. Given that the government would have known of its intention to bring this bill to the House at this time, one hopes that the necessary budgetary provisions would have been made for the initial groundwork that must be implemented even before the bill makes its way to the desk of President David Granger for his signature.
However, one of the things that can and should be changed immediately is the language used in relation to juveniles at odds with the law. For instance, Minister Ramjattan was quoted by the Department of Public Information on two occasions as saying that truancy and ‘wandering’ were “economic crimes, which young people should not be penalised for.” Really? It is disappointing that as a lawyer, Mr Ramjattan would use such terminology. No adult can ever be charged with truancy or wandering, which is better known elsewhere as running away from home. These offences are specific to children/juveniles.
Truancy occurs when a child who is subject to compulsory full-time education, which in Guyana is up to age 16, is deliberately and continually absent without a valid excuse. In many instances, the child is absent without his/her parents or guardians’ knowledge. Incidentally, children have been known to turn truant to escape bullying at school. ‘Wandering’, which is probably specific to Guyana, occurs when a child runs away from home. Very often, this is done continually, and one of the reasons is abuse—either, sexual, physical, mental or emotional or a combination of two or more of these—in the home. How would either of these constitute an economic crime? In other countries, the USA included, they are called status offences, because they are illegal only because of the child’s age.
While we can acknowledge that sometimes children stay away or are kept away from school because their parents/guardians claim that they are unable to send them for want of finances and that some might leave a home where there is no food to find sustenance elsewhere, surely these reasons relate to the delinquent parents?
Among the provisions in the bill that will require considerable spending is the establishment of adequate facilities for the custody and detention of juveniles in trouble with the law, as they should not be held in the same places as adults. There is evidence all around us that youths under the age of 18 have been involved in some heinous crimes, including robbery under arms and murder. Some have been inducted into gangs controlled by criminally-minded adults. Should they be detained in the same facility as those minors who pick pockets, are recruited to sell marijuana and pills to their peers or break into homes?
But before getting way ahead of ourselves, has it been determined that either the detention facility at Sophia, or the custodial one at Onderneeming is adequate? Can either supply the support, supervision or rehabilitation envisaged in the bill? The short answer is no. But perhaps, ‘not at this point’ can be tacked on once it is determined that the authorities intend to bring both places up to the required international standards. Moves will have to be made quickly to find other facilities, but it may be that there are some buildings/institutions that can be repurposed.
Another consideration is that once the Juvenile Justice Bill becomes law and ‘wandering’ no longer exists, it would not only be fair, but necessary, to repeal the sentences of those minors currently ‘doing time’ for same at the New Opportunity Corps. Where do they go? Back home? What if the same situation that caused them to run in the first place still exists? There are no halfway homes and the children’s facilities run by the state are all full, as well as those that are privately run but take referrals from the Child Care and Prevention Agency. Here again, there will need to be a significant outlay of funds to ensure that the necessary space is available.
There is already a dearth of properly-trained counsellors, therapists and child psychologists, and in order to properly implement the provisions in the bill, many more will be required. Training, retraining and hiring also have to be placed on the credit side of the costing of this legislation.
The gains, however, can be tremendous. No child should ever be charged, placed before the courts and incarcerated for non-criminal offences and that is about to end. Those in authority have an unprecedented opportunity to bring about real change with this legislation and further extend support to families in crisis. The end goal should be to have families—and not government programmes, institutions or employees—raise their children effectively.