Child rights advocate; Nicole Cole, is urging Government to work expeditiously to ensure that the Juvenile Justice Reform Bill is presented in Parliament by the new deadline.
Cole, who sits on the Rights of the Child Commission (ROCC) representing the Women and Gender Equality Commission (WGEC), expressed disappointment that the Bill has not yet been laid in Parliament when Government had earlier promised to have it presented this month.
“We have to get this important Bill passed. If the Bill remains on the shelf, where it has been for almost 10 years now, then we will not get anywhere. Children are still being charged for wandering, and that bothers me. That is something we need to address immediately,” she urged.
The outspoken rights advocate said that the Bill contains some “revolutionary ideas” that would assist with the overall protection of children. She also referred to the Bill seeking to address the abolishment of truancy and wandering as crimes.
“The revolutionary thing in this Bill is it will take into account the child’s mental health to evaluate before you institutionalise a child. It takes into account the rights of the child,” she asserted.
Cole said this is important — so that the child gets the required care and attention that he/she needs. Further, she said it puts the family and/or relatives of these children to better respond to their children’s needs.
Asked whether she thinks the Police may target certain communities where they arrest children for truancy, the ROCC official related that while she does not think that might be the case, she thinks children who fall in the poor and underprivileged bracket are mostly charged.
Overall, Cole said, the Bill helps to create a more modern system of dealing with juvenile justice, and will ensure that Guyana confirms with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that no one should be allowed to punish children in a cruel or harmful way.
“Children who break the law should not be treated cruelly; they should not be put in prison with adults. They should be able to keep in contact with their families, and should not be sentenced to death, or life imprisonment without the possibility of release,” Cole said, while quoting the UN Convention article.
Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, who is responsible for the Bill, had said that jails are not the place where young people who have committed offences should be placed. He said the Bill will make sweeping changes to existing legislation, including raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years.
The minister has said that once the Bill is made law, magistrates and the Magistrates’ Courts will have to be trained on juvenile justice matters. Halfway houses and a number of infrastructures to take care of juveniles will also be a priority, and social workers will have to be employed in these institutions.
In 2016, a Commission of Inquiry into a deadly prison fire had recommended strong programmes for alternative community-based sentencing to be put in place, because of rampant overcrowding in the prisons and the risk of first time offenders being corrupted by hardened criminals.
The draft Bill was conceived in 2004 under the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Administration with support and input from UNICEF. The first draft was produced in 2007 after a series of consultations and submissions by stakeholders, inclusive of the ROCC; however, progress was delayed and efforts to revive the process began in 2014. The 11-part Bill makes provision for establishment of facilities to enable the rehabilitation and education of juvenile offenders.