Should justice be punitive or rehabilitative? Should the system come down hard and incarcerate anyone who commits a crime regardless of severity or circumstance, or should we look to move forward in a way that focuses on rehabilitating and re-educating perpetrators? Even more importantly, how should the system differ for children or young people?
Worldwide studies show that a high percentage of young offenders go on to reoffend and that the types of people they come into contact with during their incarceration often serve to support a network of continued criminal activity leading to a longer career of crime. Some therefore argue that to imprison young offenders keeps them more firmly on a path of delinquency and that alternative measures may serve better to encourage them to become more responsible citizens.
Children’s Rights Bills are in place in an effort to protect all children. Is it fair to make them forfeit those rights because they make mistakes when all too often the reasons and causes behind those mistakes are societal failures? Of course there are numerous violent, evil crimes being committed by both young and old, that warrant tough consequences, but law enforcement needs to recognise when heavy sentences are appropriate and when alternative approaches would better suit a child, society and the system. Do you keep pumping funds and resources into a system that sees high instances of reoffending and little or no moral adjustments in attitudes, or do you try another route?
Guyana’s juvenile justice system has long been in need of change and thankfully is in the process of reform. UNICEF has made many recommendations that lean towards more rehabilitative programmes than to a harsher punitive system. Progressively, ministers are receiving up-to-date training and applying their developing knowledge to the draft bills of reform of the system.
The focus is definitely on the rights of children and areas under consideration are: age of responsibility, the decriminalisation of minor delinquent acts, duration and facilities of incarceration, and preventive measures.
The danger is that to move from one extreme to another in a short amount of time can bring a set of problems of its own. There is the risk that failure to punish crime and the shift of responsibility from children who may well be fully aware of their actions, and be responsible for them, will allow abuses of the system.
Young people are already vulnerable to older criminals recruiting and exploiting them. Older criminals may take advantage of the lenient consequences children will encounter if they are caught by encouraging children to take bigger risks and become further embroiled in criminal activity.
Balance, as usual, should be the objective. Yes, there has to be an ultimate goal that assimilates itself with a global vision, but a realistic, achievable phase that has real impact on those most in need should be the initial plan of action.
A system that is capable of judging individual cases guided by sound legislation and that reflects the rights of the child while perusing safe outcomes for society. One that is multilayered in its approach so punishment, correction or support fits the crime. Promoting a culture where prevention comes from a holistic perspective based on researched youth work, training professionals, educating caregivers and utilising schools will aid reform incalculably.
The mind-set of many front-line professionals needs shifting before new legislation can have any chance of being successfully implemented. There are many considerations to overcome before people can be expected to accept a new concept and way of viewing youth justice.
Understanding that crime can be the result of many different issues and following a new model that may seem too tolerant and indulgent, will be a huge stumbling block for many within the justice system. However, if people at the top lead by example; continually working towards reform, and other countries’ support and guidance remain, then Guyana has a chance to develop a more humane and restorative system with which to deal with Juvenile Justice.