Alternative programme giving Dominican boys a second chance
Dominica 28 May 2009 - The 16-year-old boy stood pensive before the magistrate awaiting his sentence at the end of a brief trial where he was found guilty on the charge of possession of an illegal drug.
It was his first brush with the law but a few years earlier the presiding judicial officer would have had few options outside of imposing a custodial sentence or probation on the teenager.
Now one year later at 17, Joel (not his real name) is one of almost 30 teenagers in Dominica who are getting a second chance to turn around their lives in the From Offending to Achieving Programme, which is seeking to give a second chance to some first timers who have found themselves in conflict with the law. In addition to teaching practical job skills, the project also incorporates sessions on personal development.
“Before coming here I was on the street with my friends smoking and that is how I got caught with marijuana,” said Joel. He is now making the most of an opportunity to wipe his conviction card clean after successfully completing the one year programme which is being run by The Social Centre, an arm of the Catholic Church in Dominica.
“I was here since last April and it has helped me a lot. Most of my ways I had before have changed. I don’t even smoke now and I influence the friends who still come around me to change their ways as well,” Joel adds.
From Offending to Achieving caters principally to boys and young men aged 14-17 who are before the court for minor offences. Among them are young males who have been convicted or who the courts have placed on probation. Local courts are also sending boys to the programme to be evaluated before their sentencing comes up.
The programme is one of the initiatives the UNICEF Barbados and Eastern Caribbean Office is supporting in its attempt to assist partners in supporting children to put their lives back on track.
From Offending to Achieving, which is only in its second year, has already attracted the attention of people both in and outside the judicial system in Dominica and throughout the Eastern Caribbean.
It recently got a regional and global stamp of approval when the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat named it as one of the best practices in juvenile justice in the Caribbean. It was selected as a winner in the “Keeping Boys Out of Risk” competition and showcased at the recent Regional Caribbean Conference on Keeping Boys Out of Risk in Jamaica.
Social Centre Coordinator Normal Cyrille is elated with the recognition, but considers the award to be the impetus to do more with the programme.
“Right now we are only in the pilot stage but with the national concern about the behavior of juveniles in the island we see the need to have the programme duplicated in at least another five districts,” she says.
Like Coordinator Abram Browne, she believes that there are many more at risk youth, including girls, who can benefit from a scaled up programme. In 2007, the juvenile courts dealt with 452 cases, suggesting that many more boys and girls can be spared from future encounters with the law.
UNICEF Representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Tom Olsen, said his office is happy to support the programme which, even in its early stage, is beginning to impact on the lives of some boys.
“We hope that this example in Dominica can become a best practice for other islands in the Eastern Caribbean. They must be positive alternatives to incarceration and the From Offending to Achieving Programme is a brilliant pilot programme. Once giving a chance to work it can show that suitable alternatives can divert adolescents from a life of crime,” Olsen adds.
For the coordinators, the task now is to encourage government and other stakeholders to come onboard to make a full national programme a reality.
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