Public Hearings a First in Balancing the Scales of Justice for Juvenile Offenders

Cape Times (South Africa), February 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Public Hearings a First in Balancing the Scales of Justice for Juvenile Offenders


BYLINE: Don Pinnock

A Bill that was seemingly lost for nearly four years in the parliamentary maze has been found, dusted off and put back in the public domain. Public hearings on the much-beleaguered Child Justice Bill begin in Parliament today after public submissions were called for late last year.

NGOs and experts on child justice are expected to make their voices heard in an attempt to convince the justice and constitutional development portfolio committee to clear the Bill for discussion in Parliament and, hopefully, to get it passed into law.

The version of the Bill produced by the South African Law Reform Commission in 2002 was one of the most progressive pieces of child-justice legislation in the world and its implementation could go a long way to reduce South Africa's growing crime problem. But its trajectory through the justice mill has been tortuous and mired in controversy.

Since being introduced to Parliament in 2002, it has been passed to and fro like a hot potato - tinkered with, watered down and chewed over by the portfolio committee and, particularly, by Deputy Justice Minister Johnny de Lange. The most recent version of the Bill indicates that it has moved even further away from its original intentions.

There was no inherent problem with the Law Reform Commission's version of the Bill, and it was even implementation costed - a parliamentary first.

The Bill would create the context for community and victim involvement, protection of young people after arrest, diversion programmes which would teach offenders different values, alternative role models to gang leaders and understandable restorative justice for victims, offenders and the community. The costs would be no more than keeping kids in prison for years on end.

Such restorative justice has proved to be a tough option for youngsters. It forces them to face their victims and to feel the wrath of the community, which is far harder for a teenager than being locked up with, very often, their peers. Community service, under the watchful eyes of a community, is both a form of public shaming and healing.

This type of justice, according to one of the Bill's drafters, child-rights lawyer Dr Ann Skelton, has infinitely more chance of breaking the cycle of crime than prison.

A community-based rites-of-passage programme named Usiko in Stellenbosch has proved that. More than 300 at-risk youngsters have passed through and none, as far as can be ascertained, have rejoined gangs. Programmes run by Nicro, Models of Manhood, Educo and other NGOs have had similar results.

All are based on understandings from which the Child Justice Bill was derived and are being implemented ahead of the Bill becoming law because they work.

Politicians, however, have been going in the other direction, seeking regulation rather than relying on the discretion of prosecutors and magistrates on the ground.

The portfolio committee has been tightening the Bill's control and has linked diversion to complicated schedules of offences which allow or disallow diversion depending on the "grading" of offences. …

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