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South Africa’s One-Stop Child Justice Centres

Protecting the rights of children in conflict with the law

by Sheena Adams

It's 12pm on a Friday and Lester is beginning to feel warm from the drugs. Sitting at the back of a metered-taxi in Athlone, a less-affluent suburb of Cape Town, he smiles across at his two friends as one of them draws out a knife. "The ecstasy was already in my system. I was sitting there and then..." He pauses.

"Suddenly we were hijacking this car," he recalls, eyes wide open. It's not an uncommon crime in Cape Town. What's extraordinary is that Lester is 16 years-old. Small-built and soft-spoken, he has enormous hands, scarred and punctuated with bitten nails. "My one friend held the knife under the driver's chin and pushed him out the car. We didn't hurt him. We drove off but we didn't know that the car had a tracker. "The police arrested us in Seapoint. The shock of everything took the (effect of the) drugs away. That I can remember," he says with a weak smile.

Lester is one of 38 000 youths arrested for various crimes in the Western Cape each year. He has seen the inside of maximum-security Pollsmoor Prison and says with dead brown eyes that he's "already been through life". Sixteen and over the hill, with big green tattoos to prove it. His friend, Andrew, is 18. He was arrested three years ago for armed robbery and spent two years in Pollsmoor as an awaiting trial prisoner - years that have ensured him a lifetime supply of sweaty nightmares.

"For two years the magistrates and prosecutors had excuses. Either my lawyer wasn't there or the social worker didn't come," Andrew says. Andrew ran away from home in 1997, not being able to cope with an abusive father who fought violently with his mother. "I ran away to Philippi to live with friends when I was 15. We used to rob people at the train station and take their money but we never hurt anybody. "My friends gave me my own gun and I liked that gun," he smiles. "I walked everywhere with that gun but I didn't hurt anybody."

Andrew and his group of young criminals operated above the law for years until the day they decided to rob a local bakery truck - a truck they knew was transporting the day's cash-takings to a bank. "We were waiting for the truck outside the bakery when I saw this woman carrying a big wallet. I decided I wanted that wallet and went up to her and grabbed it. "But she just refused to let go. She was screaming and I was pulling and my friends didn't even help. A police-van pulled up out of nowhere and I ran and ran but they caught me near a police station." Andrew was arrested and spent the night at the Lansdowne police station. "All I remember was this big rat in the police cell.  A big rat and this dirty blanket that had this terrible smell. I had to eat bread and cold coffee. I cried and cried." Andrew's case was postponed for two weeks and he was sent to Pollsmoor.

“My World has been an Adult World, but it’s not too late.”

The memories may be three years old but Andrew speaks about his first day in Pollsmoor as if it happened yesterday, eyes glistening with tears. "I was eating my egg and pap (maize-meal) on the first day when this warden came up to me with a steel pipe and hit me. He told me to finish my food so I followed him to my room. I was so scared. There were big men everywhere, eating chicken and ice-cream that they bought from the cooks. "Everyone was asking who I was and which gang I belonged to - 26s or 28s. I said I was clean so they left me alone.  "Eventually I had to join one of them and I started fighting back. I learnt that if I showed the prisoners I could fight, they became scared of me. "It was another feeling being in jail and being visited by old teachers and my mother," he sighs, his head resting on his hands. 

Lester is out on bail. His mother paid the R1,000 with some difficulty. The teenager's next court appearance is in November.  "My world has been an adult world, but I don't think it's too late. Now, life is going to be what I make of it," Lester says. The teenagers are a drop in the ocean of scared faces who file through the cells at Pollsmoor every year.

At the moment, 320 wide-eyed youngsters - all of them younger than 18 – are cooped in the cells that were temporary homes for both Lester and Andrew. They are all children that have few alternatives in a country where the jails are full of under-age criminals simply because there are precious few institutions for juveniles. Andrew finally made it out of the criminal justice centre last year and was sent to one of only three rehabilitation facilities in the province, the Bosasa Horizon Youth Centre. "It felt so good being able to show the people in my life that I have changed - people like my violin teacher - it made them happy.” Bosasa helped me see that I can't go back to crime. I know now that I will never go back."

Young People Need Speedy Justice

David McNamara is unit leader at Bosasa. He says that young people who are forced to spend time in Pollsmoor, even if it's a few weeks, come to the centre "shell-shocked". "Other boys can spend three years as awaiting-trial prisoners in jail. That's a sentence already. That child comes out a hardened criminal," McNamara says.  It's a terrifying prospect that McNamara and his colleagues are trying to erase. The answer, they say, is a one-stop justice centre for juveniles. McNamara knows that such a centre would help ensure that children arrested for crimes are given immediate hearings and the chance of alternative forms of sentencing.

"Young people need speedy justice. If one is arrested at 14 and then sent to jail at 18, it just won't do." The idea is one that has been adopted in three South African provinces already - Northern Cape, Free State and Eastern Cape - to telling success. One-stop justice centres have been set up where arrested juveniles are given immediate hearings and sent as quickly as possible to youth centres for rehabilitation programmes. If necessary, they are held overnight at cells linked to police stations at the centre. "That children have hearings immediately is wonderful. It's never a case of no social worker, or no lawyer. They get an immediate diversion out of the criminal justice centre into a rehabilitation programme," McNamara says. The centre is home to about 170 boys between the ages of 11 and 18 with the highest admittance being for crimes like housebreaking and theft. McNamara says, however, that it isn't uncommon to find a child awaiting trial for two murders, rape and assault. This ties in, he explains, with initiation rituals for young people into most gangs.

Whereas before initiation meant raping a young woman, these days it includes murder as well. "Forty percent of the young people admitted are from the streets. The one-stop centre would be useful in that all cases would be assessed by a probation officer in court," he says. The court would then be able to pass down alternative sentences, many of them controlled by the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro). These include a youth school and community corrections where the child is under house-arrest but allowed to go to school.

Preparing Children for Reintegration in their Communities

The one-stop centre in Port Elizabeth is also pioneering another form of alternative sentencing called family group conferencing. McNamara explains: "If Johnny steals a car radio and is caught, he meets with the owner of the radio, his family, victim-support and criminal-support.”Once they are all together, Johnny makes an apology. Maybe then, it is decided that he gets a job to pay off the cost of the radio or something like that. What's important is that the child feels that he has done wrong, that he apologises and pays back in some way". McNamara says that admitting a child to the centre is seen as a beginning. "We see it as a way of getting them home. If a child is arrested for some sort of crime and he is thought to be a danger to his community, he is probably dysfunctional and won't be able to fit in with his family.

"After 6 months at a centre like Horizon, maybe that would have changed," he explains. Programmes running at the centre include art, wood work, computer skills and literacy training as well as a mental programme on life skills. McNamara says that added benefits of the one-stop centres are less-congested jails with fewer children behind bars. Juveniles cost the state R96 a day in jail, and although fees at youth centres are more - between R140 and R270 a day - McNamara says it is more beneficial for the country that its young offenders attend rehabilitation programmes.

Dr Stanley de Smidt, the assistant director for social services in the Western Cape, says the setting up of a one-stop justice centre is dependent at this stage on securing sufficient funding. "What we are wanting to establish is a structure including between four and six courts, each with status of a regional court. There will be on-site probation services with Nicro diversion options, legal aid facilities and a police station. "We need between R5 million and R8 million to set up such a centre," de Smidt says. "The one-stop centre would centralise juvenile cases and expedite the cases. At the present moment, all juvenile cases are scattered around the city's magistrate courts with children stuck in the justice system for too long. "The courts at the justice centre will be specialised courts with magistrates and prosecutors who specialise in youth criminality.  Sentences will be tailored for juveniles," he says.

 

 

 

 

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