Alternative sentencing for juveniles

They are simply children, we should hardly think of them as offenders

By Pragmatis
10 February 2020

In the past decade, Guyana has made significant strides towards implementing systems committed to child rights and ensuring every child’s best interest is always a primary consideration. The Juvenile Justice Department is one such system recently introduced, and already its offices are flooded with stories of young offenders, where they are given an opportunity for rehabilitation, rather than being treated as criminals. According to William Orrin Boston, Director of the Juvenile Justice Department, children who find themselves in trouble are often thought of “as offenders rather than as victims” – however, by virtue of the fact that “they are simply children”, we should hardly think of them as offenders.

The case of Ian Henry, for instance, is one of many that helped usher in new child rights legislation, such as the Juvenile Justice Act 2018 which replaced outdated legislation like the Training Schools Act 2010.Under current law, this legislation takes into consideration that children are fundamentally different from adults in the way they make decisions and may not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Its primary goal, therefore, is alternative sentencing, which aims to reduce the severity of sentences handed down to juvenile offenders before the Court and ensure they have a second opportunity to become law-abiding citizens.

The department’s responsibilities rest on reinforcing and promoting socio-legal measures for rehabilitation, re-education and reintegration. Many of the juvenile offenders are teenaged children from vulnerable homes and communities. A second-chance approach offers them a different path, for example, to learn technical skills and take vocational training classes.

 

The case of Ian Henry, for instance, is one of many that helped usher in new child rights legislation, such as the Juvenile Justice Act 2018

The walls of the department reflect this commitment too, bearing a drawing board outlining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This serves as a profound reminder of Boston’s mission as well as those of the Deputy Directors, Joan-Ann Edghill-Stuart and Andre Gonsalves; the aim is towards spearheading child advocacy interventions on juvenile justice across Guyana.

Adopting alternative sentencing through changes to legislation is transforming Guyana’s juvenile justice system. These transformations are widening the scope for support, they are changing the structure of the system, and they are modifying the way that the various stakeholders relate to each other. There is a network of interested parties: policing bodies, holding-centre teams, the community, the courts, as well as social service agencies and support organizations such as the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), which ensures legal representation for many young victims and reduces their numbers in the system. Open Facilities are a new development that will help to provide rehabilitation. There is a more lenient ethos and children are educated and cared for rather than being viewed just as criminal offenders. This does not mean the system will phase out use of Closed Facilities, but they will be a last resort.

It is sometimes challenging for these independent bodies to work together as bottlenecks in the process blur the lines of communication. When this occurs, research, with stakeholder participation is required to define the issues and get solutions in order to implement the necessary protocols to protect the rights of these children. As Eghill-Stuart emphasizes, “it is paramount that we fight for these young people because they are victims of societal dilemmas that require attention.”
 

Issues of abuse and neglect and “putting children at the mercy of the law” are a reality.

Juvenile Justice, Child Protection, Child Rights
@UNICEF Guyana/2019

One example highlighting the need for research and free flow of information, Gonsalves recalls, is a case involving a young Amerindian boy – arrested for a crime, he was then transported to Georgetown. However, the boy’s family only received vague details about his arrest. After a year, they found the boy’s whereabouts with proactive assistance from his office. “You can literally lose your children in the system,” he says.

It is Gonsalves’ belief that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is made up of social, health, economic, political and civil rights, while simultaneously preserving the cultural fabric of our people and children. With this in mind, he urges us to remember the “ethical principles,” which “guide our decisions”, and reminds us that “the judicial system and their discretions are of utmost importance. This discretion is perhaps their most humane quality. A thing that may, at times, be forgotten.” Our children need prompt support, because they become the parents of tomorrow. It is in society’s best interest to allow them the opportunity to pursue purpose and meaning in their lives today – this should not be deferred into the future. “After all,” Gonsalves says, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Congressional and legislative bodies also have an impact on the system. Courts and magistrates often work in tandem with social services and use their discretion when dealing with children.“Stealing a mango is not as serious a thing as stealing a car, or motorcycle, though they both are classified as theft. But none of the two are as serious as murder,” Boston points out. It is important to make distinctions regarding the magnitude of a crime.

Issues of abuse and neglect and “putting children at the mercy of the law” are a reality. As Edghill-Stuart points out, a child knows the difference between being loved and feeling loved, recalling an incident at a training session where a young boy stood, sadly saying, “If my father was here, I wouldn’t be in here.”  Boston recalled another situation that came to the attention of his office where a parent reprimanded a child for studying late in the evening for fear of increasing their electricity bill. Boston highlights how some parents who do not know the value of studying will “fall short on advocating for it.” The mother was a struggling single parent trying to keep things together; this story shows a clear need for social welfare in single-parent homes.

Boston emphasizes practicality in running the department which is committed to the safe protection and rehabilitation of every juvenile - ensuring they have the right to speak and the right to be heard. He remains optimistic that increased awareness and proactive efforts will help ensure young offenders are given opportunities with alternative sentences and that the juvenile system continues working toward initiatives changing the way in which young offenders are viewed and treated across Guyana.