Barbados today convened its first National Conference On Juvenile Justice with Attorney General and Minister of Home Affairs Adriel Brathwaite signalling that the days of having delinquent youths serving lengthy prison sentences at Her Majesty’s pleasure could soon be numbered.
“Today can be considered the start of significant reform in the area of juvenile justice,” declared Brathwaite, who is expecting to receive a comprehensive reform proposal by the end of next month.
While acknowledging that reform had been needed “for many years”, he also promised that major legislative and structural changes would be made to the island’s juvenile justice system by the end of next year.
“I wish to give my personal commitment that as long as I am Attorney General most, if not all, of the structural and legislative changes that should come out of this conference should be addressed by the end of the year 2016,” Brathwaite said.
Of particular concern to him is the vast number of 16 to 18-year-olds being incarcerated and serving time with adult prisoners.
“I am of the firm opinion that we are causing more harm than good by confining our children to the Government Industrial School and sometimes to Dodds,” said Brathwaite.
“We have under our law, a minimum sentence of three years for example. So you have many young people who are being sentenced to the Government Industrial School for three years. That really should not be,” he said.
Acknowledging that some offenses might require incarceration, Brathwaite contended that prison should be a last resort and a number of alternatives to imprisonment would have to be considered including the Juvenile Liaison Scheme and mediation.
“We have to determine if we are treating the root causes or we are just putting people behind bars. If you are putting people behind bars and they are coming back out with the same problems, then where else can they go except back into the prison?” Brathwaite asked.
“We need to do additional training for police officers. We have the Barbados Youth Service, the education [system] doing things, there are lots of programmes in Barbados . . . I am going to ensure that we pull all the actors together and look at the programmes and see what works and what doesn’t and take the best of the breeds and implement them across Barbados,” he said.
About two years ago United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) champion for children Faith Marshall-Harris presented a paper to the government highlighting legislative changes that needed to be made.
Brathwaite admitted that “somewhere along the line the ball was dropped”, but gave the assurance that he was committed to getting those changes implemented.
An upbeat Marshall-Harris, who is also taking part in the conference, said she welcomed the news from Brathwaite, adding that she hoped the changes would be made “within very short order”.
“One of the most important things he said this morning is one of the changes I advocated and that is that we stop the talk about juveniles and we now speak about youth justice. Juvenile is a pejorative term,” she said.
“Also, the fact that we are not going to seek to punish young people, but we are going to start by trying to return them to society as better people and get the rest of society to help them reform if reform is needed. That is the whole thrust that I have been preaching for and I hope this is the start of it coming,” said Marshall-Harris.