At least two Commissioners on the Rights of the Child Commission are excited over the prospects of the recently tabled “revolutionary” Juvenile Justice Bill, but they warn that it must do more to address the issues of bail and legal representation for children.
The Bill was tabled in Parliament last Thursday and will allow for wandering to longer be a charge for which children will be incarcerated, among other things.
Rights Commissioner Nicole Cole, who has repeatedly advocated for the passage of the Bill, said, “The reason why the Bill is revolutionary is because it will finally eschew the charge of wandering.”
Pointing to a large number of children charged and currently in custody at the New Opportunity Corps for wandering, Cole said the situation was alarming.
The UNICEF Situation Analysis of 2016 found that over 70% of children at the NOC were there on charges of wandering.
Cole recalled that the study was done by the United Nations Children Fund as she insisted that the situation was grave and needed addressing.
“This Bill will no longer prosecute children in difficult circumstances… I have been advocating for the passage of this Bill for over seven years, the reason being is that we can no longer move forward in the 21st century by locking up children who are in difficult circumstances,” she added.
Cole said the Bill is also revolutionary because it further makes provisions for every child who comes into contact with the law to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
“We will have to ensure that there are child psychologists and other resources to do what the Bill calls for,” She said, while recalling the work of the late Dr. Faith Harding in this area.
“Kudos to the government for finally tabling the Bill but we need child physiologists immediately, like yesterday.
Cole was backed up by her colleague Commissioner, Andre Gonsalves who also said the Bill was revolutionary and pioneering.
He said while the Bill alluded to some other issues but it was still ambiguous in some areas.
Gonsalves, who is currently reviewing the Bill, said the Bill needs to address the issue of children being on remanded for over five years since “justice delayed is justice denied”.
“We also need to pay keen attention to children appearing in Court unrepresented.. we either need a public defenders office or expand the subvention to the Guyana Legal Aid Council.”
Currently, children only receive free counsel in specified circumstances as cases such as murder but Gonsalves believes this should extend to all cases, preventing any child from going before the Court unrepresented.
“We must be specific and we will have to look at the Bail Act, Protection of Children Act and the Sexual Offences Act.”
-by Kurt Campbell-