Lawyers debate how to address youth gang violence in A&B

leon chaku symister
Leon Chaku Symister
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By Robert A. Emmanuel

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Reforming the current legislation to address the issue of youth gang violence in the country will not adequately solve the issue.

The Child Justice Act, originally passed in 2015 and amended in 2018, replaced the Juvenile Act in an attempt to create “a criminal justice process for children accused of committing offences based on restorative justice, and which aims at protecting the rights of children”.

However, following a recent rise in youth gang violence and cutlass-related injuries to students, several ministers, including Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin, Social Transformation Minister Dean Jonas, and Education Minister Daryll Matthew were quick to respond.

One of the solutions raised by the administration was a review and potential amendment to the legislation.

On Observer’s Big Issues programme yesterday, two attorneys-at-law — Monique Francis-Gordon and Leon Chaku Symister — shared their opinions on the government’s intention to review the Child Justice Act.

Both lawyers claimed that while the current legislation was inadequate to deal with the pressing issue, the government should not rush to pass amendment.

“I would say that part of the problem is that we rush to legislate and think it fixes the problem, but when we don’t deal with the matter cohesively, legislation is just a piece of paper,” Francis-Gordon said.

One reason why both lawyers cautioned the government from seeking a quick resolution was the delay in the creation of the current Child Justice Board.

“It was not until 2018 that the Child Justice Board—an important component of that system—was set up, so what we saw with the young persons committing offences between 2015 and 2018 was nothing,” explained Symister.

Francis-Gordon also questioned: “Under this Act, the Welfare Division and social workers play a critical role, but their division is underfunded, overworked and understaffed, so how are the welfare officers able to do their job if they don’t have the requisite funding?”

She also raised the issue of the age of criminal responsibility established under the Child Justice Act, which raised it from eight to 12 years.

She referenced a prior experience while she was speaking at a school on criminal responsibility where children, she said, asked whether they could harm others, including teachers, without any repercussions.

“For an 11-year-old to articulate that ‘I can punch somebody or stab somebody and they can’t do me anything’, for me, [that] was extremely troubling,” Francis-Gordon shared.

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