Editorial: How is that a criminal offence

One of the hottest topics being discussed is the recommendation by the Director of Education in Antigua and Barbuda, Clare Browne, that loitering be made a criminal offence and parents held accountable.  He is of the strong belief that this stringent measure could be used to address what he termed as a “worrying issue that has been left unattended for years.”  According to Browne, “We must do something like that if somehow we are going to curb this problem. We want to make sure that once that happens parents too are held accountable for children who are loitering downtown.”

The thought that loitering could be considered a criminal offence set off a firestorm of criticism, and to describe the recommendation as being “controversial” would be an understatement of significant proportions.  Just the thought that liming on the block could result in a permanent criminal record for someone boggled most people’s minds.  Just imagine having to tick that “Have you been convicted of a criminal offence?” box on a job application all because of loitering!

Luckily, the Cabinet saw the folly of that suggestion and shot it down.  Instead, the Cabinet members have asked the Ministry of Education to examine a policy that can be successfully applied to deterring students from loitering in the commercial sector of St. John’s, during after-class hours.  Cabinet also advised the Education Director that his wish for a policy that may have criminal liability for parents would likely offend constitutional guarantees.

While we are criticising the proposed criminalisation of loitering, we have a good amount of respect for Director Browne.  We believe that he does good work with what he has, and many times he is frustrated.  We can also agree with his assessments that the loitering issue has been left to fester for too long and we must do something.   The big problem is juvenile loitering is a complex issue that goes way beyond the simple remedies of laws, regulations and enforcement.

Looking at the simple remedies, the first hurdle is our constitution.  Within Chapter II of that supreme law, entitled “Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Individual” is section 13 that talks of the “Protection of freedom of assembly and association.”  The constitution makes it clear that “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of peaceful assembly and association, that is to say, his right peacefully to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular to form or belong to trade unions or other associations for the promotion and protection of his interests.”  

Those rights are fairly clear, however, there are exceptions. For example, the constitution allows provisions that are reasonably required “in the interests of defence, public order, public morality or public health” as long as they are reasonably justified in a democratic society.  In late 2014, the government went to Parliament to amend the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2014 that sought to hold parents and guardians accountable for children found loitering on the streets between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in attempt to address one aspect of the issue – loitering at nights.  The amendment called for parents to be fined $500 where the child had no proper reason for being on the streets at 10 p.m. and beyond, if the court deemed it appropriate.  Of course, that does not address the issue of after-school hours before 10 p.m., and there is little evidence that the existing laws are being enforced.  Laws without enforcement – where have we heard about that before?

As we stated before, after-school loitering and the associated mischief (if we are allowed to use that word) go beyond the ability of fines and criminalisation as a fix.  We are treating the symptoms and not looking at the core issues that will lead to a cure.  Why are our youth loitering on the streets of St. John’s.  Back in the day, when school was done, you went home.  Any loitering occurred on the neighbourhood block under the watchful eye of the community busy-bodies that would report any out-of-place behaviour.  That no longer seems to exist, but at the core of it is: why are the children not scurrying home?  How are juveniles allowed that freedom to loiter and get into trouble?

This is not an easy question to answer but it is at the core of the problem.  Parents seems to have abdicated their responsibilities as guardians to the streets and are allowing their kids to do-as-they-like.  In the meantime, the Ministry of Education has been given a near impossible task to come up with a policy that could be applied to the loitering issue that will be effective, but not offensive, and they have to report on that policy later next month.  Unless miracles occur, the best we can hope for are more band-aids.

As daunting as the task sounds, we need to examine the root causes that lead to juvenile loitering.  We need to understand why kids have the freedom to roam and mingle as they do.  And the answers to those questions lie with the parents who allow this behaviour to occur.  Our search for a solution to the loitering problem starts with the parents and an understanding of why they do not administer their parental responsibilities after the school bell rings.