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05.09.2008 Feature Article

REFORMING GHANA’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM AN AGENDA FOR JUVENILE JUSTICE SERVICE.

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Children and young persons are every society's future as well it's most precious and priceless asset. In my view therefore, it is important that they have the opportunity to lead full healthy and satisfying lifestyles. They should be supported and assisted to become active contributors to their communities. In addition, they should be offered with the skills and tools in life to participate socially, economically and emotionally to the development of the communities in which they live. The promulgation of the Children's Act, 1998 and the Juvenile Justice Act, 2003 have thus come to acknowledge the importance of the welfare of the Ghanaian child.

The Children's Act, 1998 sub part 1, section 2 states: 1. 'The best interest of the child should be paramount in any matter concerning a child.'

2. 'The best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration by any court, Persons, institution or other body in any matter concerned with the child.'

In the same sprit of the welfare of the child, the Juvenile Justice Act 2003, part I section 2 also stipulates that the best interest of the child shall be:

1. Paramount in any matter concerned with the Juvenile 2. The primary consideration by a Juvenile Court, institution or other body in any matter concerned with a Juvenile.

Significantly, the welfare principle of the child has been brought to the centre stage of practice by social workers and other such practitioners within the child care profession and those within the Criminal Justice arena ,i.e. the police, prisons, the courts, as these provisions have implications for their professional practices and service delivery to the child and indeed the community. Each Act is very explicit about its intentions and purposes. Identifiably, the Children's Act sub part 1 details the Rights of the child which is echoed in the Juvenile Justice Act, within the Criminal Justice System. The Children's Act sub part 2 identifies the processes and protocols for the promotion of childcare and child protection. The treatment of children and young persons in trouble with the law must be underpinned by a commitment to children's human rights as enshrined in the UN Charter on the Rights of the Child. A Juvenile Justice system must reflect the arch principle of the UN Charter. In this regard, the system should sufficiently de distinct from the adult criminal justice system, focusing on children and young person's particular characteristics, need It is therefore important that the boundaries of the criminal justice system must not be blurred so as to draw a child whose behavior is not necessarily criminal and those below the age of criminal responsibility. Any Juvenile Justice legislation therefore needs to have the character and ethos of prevention of offence or crime by children and young persons, by providing a focus for the work with juvenile offenders to concentrate on reducing wrongdoing. Thus, the use of custody should not be seen to expand and blur the requirements of article 37b of the UN Charter on the rights of the child, to reserve custody or prison as a means of last resort for the shortest possible period. Children and young persons must not be criminalized at younger ages. The courts sentencing practices should be appropriate for children and young persons, and responses to youth crime should not be adequately driven by overly punitive ethos, rather than by considerations of effectiveness and the children and young person's future health development. Clearly, the principal aim of the juvenile justice Act is to prevent wrongdoing by children. However, the courts must also 'have regard' to the welfare of the child, but the welfare principle has never be defined in its entirety. Indeed the re is a considerable overlap between the children and young persons appearing in a criminal court and those who are the concerns of the family proceedings courts. Whereas the criminal courts disposals are time limited, it has no power to ensure that the long term needs of the child are adequately met. Promoting the welfare of the child in accordance with the UN Charter on the rights of the child enshrined in the twin legislations aforementioned, and ensuring at the same time public safety would in my view require a careful professional balancing act within a context of a multi-agency framework. Significantly, the challenge now is to bridge the gap between Justice and Welfare approaches, ensuring that the long term needs of the child who offends are adequately met without exposing them to injustice or diminishing their sense of personal responsibility for their offending or criminal behavior. It is in this perspective that l inaugurated my brain child the Offender Management and Rehabilitation Organization (OMRO) at the Accra International Press Centre sometime October last year, with the vision of focusing on the development of a Juvenile Justice Service, as a response to the challenge of serving as a bridge or interface between the Children's Act and the Juvenile Justice Act It is a framework that is being envisaged to assist in translating any good intentions of these twin legislations into good practice in the delivery of appropriate and relevant services to meet the specific needs of the child who demonstrates offending behavior or unacceptable social conduct to promote their rehabilitation and protect the public from their risks of harm, if indeed the welfare of the child is paramount and central to these Acts. Within the framework of its objectives, the Juvenile Justice Service would work with children and young persons under the age of 18,who are at risk of committing crimes or repeat crimes. In this respect an appropriate adult scheme would be developed that would seek to work in close partnership and collaboration with the police, by providing professional support and assistance to children and young persons in police custody, with the provision of appropriate and relevant diversionary intervention programmers to minimize the potential risks of offending or re offending within the context of section 12 (3), (7) and section 13(2) and (3) of the Juvenile Justice Act,2003. A further element of service delivery would involve supervision programmers of intervention to children and young persons on community disposals from the juvenile courts or released from prison with both structured, planned individual and group work initiatives to confront and challenge the offender's anti social/criminal behaviors within the context of evidence based practice. A mechanism of driving a Restorative Justice process to the fore with focus on direct and indirect mediation will characterize practice in as much as Reparation Schemes ,either community driven or directly with the victims of crime The development of appropriate skills of parents of children who are at risk of getting into whatever trouble with the law will be a feature of the juvenile justice service. as means of offering assistance and support to such parents in empowering them provide adequate supervision ,discipline and control over their children, as enhancing parental skills and knowledge is vital in restoring family relationships . However, there would be the urgent need for legislation to identify the specific community sentencing options that should be available to the courts, as indeed a new sentencing guidelines cannot be ignored in the drive towards the swift administration of justice, so that children and young persons who are accused of breaking the law have the matter resolved without delay in our courts, as justice delayed is justice denied.

• The author is a Youth crime prevention and management practitioner in an inner London borough for over 10 years, and holds a B.A Honors (political science ) from University of Ghana, Legon, MA Applied Social Studies and Diploma in Social Work from Durham University ,UK • He is also the Operations Director of the NGO , Offender Management and Rehabilitation Organisation. (OMRO)

Marcus-Chris Lawson
Marcus-Chris Lawson, © 2008

The author has 63 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: MarcusChrisLawson

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