Don’t just see the crime committed, look at the social situation of the child involved.
That’s the advice of Professor Pedro Welch, as he challenged lawmakers to “go back to the drawing board” and look at alternatives to juvenile reform beyond the industrial school model.
This was one of the issues raised, as he delivered the 130th anniversary lecture on the History of the Government Industrial School at the Grand Salle, Tom Adams Financial Centre, recently.
“We need the thinkers to go back to the drawing board and look at alternative routes to reformation,” he said.
Welch told the audience, which included Attorney General and Minister of Home Affairs, Adriel Brathwaite, that there were a number of acts surrounding juvenile reform, but each spoke to a custodial sentence.
“In 2013 and beyond, there is a need to look at alternative therapies,” he stressed.
He added that alternative therapies were explored by the United States and were successful, and also resulted in them reducing the cost of maintaining some of the industrial schools.
During his presentation, Welch went back in history to the establishment of the industrial school in the post emancipation era.
He explained that in the 1850s, about 12 years after the abolition of slavery, the problem of destitute youth reared its head.
In Barbados, he noted, 14,000 children were set free immediately, resulting in their customary rights and privileges being withdrawn. These, he said, included their homes, food, and the provision of ground, ordinarily provided by their plantation bosses.
“In addition to that, most parents were reluctant to let their children enter the labour market,” he explained.
This, Professor Welch said, resulted in free children being neglected, as planters turned them and their families off estates.
“The family unit suffered. Many of the children were without support, so it was not surprising that there were many incidents of petty crime and the youth had poor health care,” he stated, noting the mortality rate of children then stood at 50 per cent.
The historian pointed out that the concept of “ragging schools”, similar to those which existed in Britain at the time, was first introduced to Barbados in an attempt to curb the situation of destitute youth.
According to him, these would later give way to the establishment of the first Industrial School Act on August 28, 1861 — an act to make lawful provision for the reformation of youthful offenders and the care and education of destitute and vagrant children.
That act was initially cited as the “Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act 1861”, and included penalties for children committing a number of offences, including begging, wandering and vagrancy. A child found guilty of committing an offence under the Act could be sent to any industrial school that was certified.
Welch explained that the industrial school began to meet the needs of the “under class”, by enforcing a timetable which included teaching children, and helping them to learn trades such as knitting and sewing.
But, despite these interventions, the socio-economic environment in Barbados did not change, and the criminalisation of the youth among the working class continued.
By 1883 a new act was established, and the state invested in buildings and lands for the incarceration of youth, one of these was the Dodds Plantation.
“The establishment of Dodds Plantation was not an accident. The choice of plantation kept the view that the plantation environment was essential to the maintenance of society,” the Historian noted.
In the early stages, the boys were required to work on the estates.
“You were looking at a time in Barbados when you had social issues and the authorities dealt with them by confinement,” he said.
The numbers of those committed to the Government Industrial School now, matched those from as far back as 1940, Welch pointed out.
And, he added, the nature of offences now being committed, highlighted the fact that there were serious issues that needed to be considered.
Some of the early offences children were accused of committing included theft, wounding, and breaking and entering. But, more recent figures show offences ranging from assault, breaches of probation, possession of offensive weapons, theft, shoplifting, threats, traffic violation, trespassing, wandering and wounding, for the girls.
Boys are also accused of similar offences, but their charges extend to include causing a disturbance, criminal damage, use of a firearm and insulting language.
“When we look at the offences we will note that there are some serious issues that begin to appear that were not present in the earlier historical time,” he said, noting boys were originally convicted for stealing sugar canes.
However, Professor Welch contended that the Act was bias because at the time a large number of the population was destitute. “To put children in the industrial school for begging was to ignore the cause of the begging.
“If the framers of the Act had dared to look beyond their noses … they might have seen that a low wage regime and a restrictive socio-economic order had trapped many families into a desperate situation,” he pointed out.
He stressed that issues surrounding juvenile delinquency, even in contemporary times, require a look beyond the visible act to the underlying cause.
Professor Welch made it clear that the custodial sentence needs to be reviewed, especially in this age, where there was more information on social conditions.