Juvenile Justice Bill on the move again; after years of delay

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After several years of delay, the current government is moving ahead with the Juvenile Justice Bill, with hope of taking it to the National Assembly soon.

Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan
Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan

As the Ministry of Public Security begins its first of three consultations on the Bill, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan stated that the Draft Juvenile Justice Bill which was completed in 2007, is a comprehensive document which will effectively tackle the significant issues related to juvenile justice in Guyana. However to complete the bill, the public’s input is of great importance.

Since 2004, the draft Juvenile Justice Bill was initiated. Following that, a number of recommendations were made to the first report by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Subsequently, in early 2006, a national consultation was hosted to address the report on Juvenile Justice which was initiated by UNICEF along with the then Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport. This saw several additional recommendations which pointed to the revision of the existing legislation and institutional strengthening. The recommendations made provision for the judiciary, social workers and those that engage children in conflict with the law, to use the detention facilities for children, as a last resort.

The draft was completed in 2007, where it articulated the need for a new Juvenile Justice Act according to a policy paper entitled “A New Juvenile Delinquency Act for Guyana? A decision for Policy Makers in 2006”.
It was then delayed for some seven (7) years, after which there was need for further update. In 2014, then Youth Minister Dr. Frank Anthony encouraged revisions of the 2007 Draft with the support of UNICEF. However, it was stated via letter in October the same year that, “It is expected that the draft Juvenile Bill and the supporting schedules to the Bill will be ready by the end of the month”, according to the then PR Officer of the Ministry. This too resulted in a delay, which was highlighted in the UNICEF Annual Report 2014 – Guyana and Suriname, ” The prorogation of Parliament will serve to effect the delay in legislation concerning children – inclusive of the Juvenile Justice Bill”.

Following the Coalition’s election to office in May 2015, a decision was made in August the same year to move ahead with the Bill. Thereafter, a decision was taken, after a multi-stakeholders meeting, for consultations to be held for further revision of the draft.

Almost seven months after that decision was made, the first consultation was held on April 27, 2016. Addressing those attended, Minister Ramjattan noted, “I wish to say that we are on our way.” Adding that the Bill will pave the way for a revolution in juvenile justice which will require a number of changes and a huge amount of resources.

“The changes must include mindset changes, of the professionals presently engaged, and what I call ‘certain organizational dynamics’, which exist in institutions dealing with youth justice. Support will be given to have these changes made as quickly as possible”, the Minister explained.

One of the many things to be addressed by the bill, is the alternative to being in prison. According to the recent Country Human Rights Report, it disclosed that officials held offenders 16 years of age and older with the adult prison population. It also cited that “a 15-year-old girl was ordered by the court to be placed in the NOC, but instead she was held for weeks in a detention center at a police station”.

Addressing the overarching issue, Minister Ramjattan stated that “in this day and age we have to provide a humane alternative to incarceration for the young law breakers. This certainly will assist in helping them avoid falling deeper into a life of crime, and helping our country from becoming a jailhouse nation”. Explaining that it is the aim, to see an Act which provides a framework, where professionals are in the forefront supporting juveniles rather than police and prison wardens.

A section of the draft particularly makes provision for alternatives from formal Court procedures to informal procedures and includes restorative measures. Measures could range from an apology to compulsory attendance of a specified vocational or education venue; or from community service, to compensation to the victim in an amount which the juvenile’s family can afford. Even at the stage before commencement of proceedings the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) or Police Officer, can consider warnings and referrals.

In this regard, Minister Ramjattan explained that, “Resources must be found to establish the placement facilities which will support this new juvenile justice regime. Resources to staff these facilities, resources for the Director of Youth and his staff, and the Juvenile Justice Committee, will cause Mr Jordan, our Finance Minister some concern. Re-training of Policemen, Prosecutors and Magistrates and even Judges will see expenditures rise”.

Another very important principle which this Draft Bill will seek to address, is the age of criminal responsibility. The question is whether the age of criminal responsibility should be increased from its present ten (10) years to twelve (12) years or should it go up even further to sixteen (16) years; a question which the consultations will address.
Minister Ramjattan however noted that he supports the exclusion of status offences in this Draft Bill which are there in the existing Juvenile Offenders Act; criminalizing behavioral problems of children such as wandering, vagrancy, truancy and runaways. A similar view was expressed in 2015 by UNICEF’S Country Representative for Guyana and Suriname, Marianne Flach where she noted “more or less, 75%” of the youths at the New Opportunity Corps (NOC) are being locked up there for wandering, which should not be the case as they should be much closer to the family institution”.

The Minister is of the view that “These are acts which often are the result of psychological or socio-economic problems. It is particularly a matter of concern, that girls and street children are often victims of this kind of communication. These acts are not considered criminal when committed by adults. There is an inherent injustice there, and discrimination on grounds of age”.

Last year too, President David Granger made a decision to pardon “petty” criminals, noting that he does not want to see Guyana’s young people at NOC, nor in any of the country’s prisons. Alluding to this, the Public Security Minister noted that, “The Government wants to see the Youth Justice System make a real difference to the lives of the children and young people from offending. Too many young people begin offending at a very young age. Too many continue offending in their adult lives. Young people who offend damage their own lives. They cause disruption, harm and distress to others. Preventing offenders is in the best interests of all concerned and should be a priority for all those working within the Youth Justice System”.

In the meantime, the first leg of the consultation was held in Georgetown which will be followed by two more; one in Berbice and the other in Essequibo.

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