It is often said if you do the crime you should do the time. But what if the time does not match the crime? Or what if that time does not help to bring about a positive change, serving only to make matters worse?
That will be one of the issues participants of the first National Conference On Juvenile Justice will be discussing at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre over the next three days.
The conference, which started today, is being held under the theme Redefining Juvenile Justice . . . Towards A Better Future.
A number of local, regional and international members of the judiciary and civil service, and youth workers, community advocates and other partners are taking part in the conference to identify challenges facing the youth justice system and come up with solutions.
Addressing the opening of the conference this morning, which was punctuated by performances from the Praise Academy Of Dance, Springer Memorial School Choir and Harrison College Orchestra, officials expressed concern that many
of the islands’ youth were being treated unfairly when they had committed an offence.
Officials even called for more to be done to prevent youth from coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
In that regard, they are seeking ways of reform to legislation, as well as structural changes to a number of programmes and institutions.
UNICEF deputy representative Muriel Mafico said children in conflict with the law were among the most vulnerable. She said oft-times when they commited an offence they experienced “exclusion, they are out of sight, they are behind closed doors and away from their families”.
“This often leads to stigmatization and isolation, which pushes children to the edge and deeper into the risk of repeat offences,” said Mafico.
Noting that Barbados had a rich history of progress in addressing issues related to the treatment of children, Mafico said after many years there were still a number of gaps in the youth justice system, adding that of particular concern was the issue of age
of criminal responsibility.
“The other one is that we have old legislation, which continues to treat children in a way that does not protect their rights,” argued Mafico.
“We need to explore new approaches that are grounded in today’s reality . . . . This is not a challenge for government alone. The challenge before us calls for strong partnerships,” she said, noting that Barbados had “a leadership role” to play in bringing about change in the region.
Attorney General and Minister of Home Affairs Adriel Brathwaite also expressed concern about the way the judicial system dealt with child offenders, saying it was not always the best in encouraging change.
He said he wanted to see a more concerted effort from the community, the media, youth workers, the church and other social groups.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to ensure that when a child comes into contact with the criminal justice system that they work with the child to ensure he does not reoffend,” said Brathwaite.
The first hurdle, he said, was to overcome hundreds of years of socialization that if we do wrong we must be punished by getting lashes or some other punitive sanctions.
“We have inherited, in the area of youth justice, a colonial justice system deeply rooted in the harsh and punitive sanctions for the most part. So our Reformatory And Industrial Schools Act allows a boy to be punished by receiving 12 or 24 strikes for escaping,” he said.
“We were taught that a few lashes don’t hurt; indeed they would make you a better man or woman. Whether this may be so, there is a vast difference between two lashes and abuse. Research continues to show that harsh and inhumane treatment is not a deterrent to offending behaviour.
“We tend to ignore the psychological and mental trauma that accompanies the traditional harsh punishment. I am convinced that a boy or girl who grows up subjected to physical punishment or harsh treatment brings that behaviour into adult life,” explained Brathwaite.
Presenters at the conference also came from St Lucia, Jamaica, Trinidad, Canada, Britain and the United States. The conference came against the backdrop of concerns expressed globally about the importance of employing alternative measures to prevent youth from coming in contact with the criminal system.
Canada’s High Commissioner to Barbados and the OECS Richard Hanley pledged continued support to the region for “a more prosperous secure and democratic hemisphere”.
“Youth and youth justice are a key part to securing the prosperity and security that we all want for our societies,” Hanley said.
Highlighting the financial and technical support the region was getting from Canada in relation to justice reform, the high commissioner said it was all aimed at modernizing and strengthening the Caribbean court systems, building capacity of judicial officers to deliver “timely and effective justice”, ensuring better access to the justice system by vulnerable groups in CARICOM, among other objectives.
“Canada is proud to contribute to this conference and share [its] own experience . . . . I hope there will be lessons learned that can be helpful to you,” Hanley said.