We were extremely happy to hear that Antigua and Barbuda will be embarking on Phase Two of the Juvenile Justice Reform Programme (JJRP). As strong believers that our future lies in the hands of our youth, we have long lamented that the manner in which we deal with youth offenders is not conducive towards reclaiming the wayward, or those who just make one or two stupid youthful mistakes. The current system is one of punishment rather than rehabilitation.
With age comes wisdom, so we cannot use the same yardstick to measure the ability of our youth to engage in logical thinking as we do adults. We have all made mistakes in our younger years, and the majority of us probably have a moment or two that could have propelled our lives in different directions, if it were not for forgiveness or just cases of not being caught. Today, we look back on those youthful indiscretions and laugh, but as we do, we should think of the youth whose lives are changed forever because of bad decisions and getting caught.
Among other things, that is what the JJRP is attempting to address. The project “seeks to strengthen juvenile justice systems to promote the rehabilitation and reintegration of youth in conflict with the law back into society.” You all know how we feel about rehabilitation versus incarceration, so it should be no surprise that we would happily promote the JJRP; especially since it targets the youth.
Our current ways of dealing with youthful offenders is archaic. So, might we add, the way we deal with many adult offenders. Our focus on punishment does little to tackle the problems that lead to the poor decisions of law-breakers or to deter them from continuing a life a crime. People have tried to persuade us otherwise but we believe that most criminals would prefer to lead a peaceful, law-abiding life. Sure there are some people that choose a criminal lifestyle and are committed to being bad, but even among that group, there are probably more than a few that have chosen that option because they do not know of any other, or are not given the opportunity to pursue an alternative lifestyle.
Overhauling the juvenile justice system is just one step in changing how we deal with at-risk youth. To bring about any meaningful change we must reduce or eliminate the societal pressures that steers someone towards crime. To do otherwise is to treat the symptoms without attempting to cure the ailment. Luckily, the JJRP is part of a larger United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project that also realises that justice overall cannot stand on its own. It has identified various social ills, such as unemployment, drug trafficking, gangs and underfunded social safety programmes and basic services, as root causes that need addressing.
Launched in 2016, the regional five-year, US$64 million Youth Empowerment Services (YES) project has three components of which the JJRP stands alongside the Community, Family, Youth Resilience Programme and Strengthening Evidence-Based Decision- Making. From our point of view, the resilience programme is the most important aspect as it represents the ounce of prevention so critical to success. This program focuses on providing at-risk youth with training opportunities to enable them to become employable.
While we can applaud the efforts of the OECS and USAID, the real power for change is rooted in Wadadli. It comes from within our families, our homes and our communities. These programs can provide the tools to assist with bringing about change, but they must be matched by a willingness to change here at home. Everyone in our ecosystem must be willing to change. Businesses have to be willing to take a chance on the youth. Families and communities have to be supportive, and law enforcement must work diligently to reduce the pressures that put our youth at risk. It must be obvious that a life of crime is hardly a life. There must be a clear distinction between the positives of being a productive law-abiding citizen and being an outlaw. The so-called “easy life” and “easy money” achieved through crime must be perceived as a very hard life to adopt.
The ball is really in our court. Let us not allow the money to dry up and the years to pass and we wake-up to find out that we did not do enough and not a lot has changed. We owe it to our youth and our future.