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06.10.2004 Crime & Punishment

Children Tangled Up in the Criminal Justice System

By Chronicle
Children Tangled Up in the Criminal Justice System

For the last month, Kofi Agyeman has been in and out of police stations and juvenile facilities for allegations of theft.

Some people say that he snatched purses; some say it was mobile phones and others still say it was food. No one is sure of the crime that he committed and they cannot verify his age.

Kofi says he is nine years old and from Santasi, a suburb of Kumasi, in the Ashanti Region.

He is one of many children who pass through the criminal justice system. The Constitution is supposed to protect children by keeping them out of adult prisons and the harsh conditions of jail, thus offering them greater chances of rehabilitation.

However, minors still end up in jail. Despite the existence of the Department of Social Welfare and other institutions intended to protect the rights of children, many young offenders still get lost in the system.

Some have been neglected or simply find themselves in trouble, while others have no ties to their families.

Kofi said that his father works as a secretary, maybe at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) or maybe at a firm near the campus.

He isn't sure. He says his mother is a hairdresser at the Santasi tro-tro station, close to a communication centre.

Sometimes he says his father's name is Kwabena Joe, other times he says it's Kwabena Muuh. His mother's name may be Yaa Mansa or Abena Dwubi.

Kofi says that he stopped attending school in class one at Ayigya Primary School, situated near KNUST.

He also says that his parents sent him to live with a couple as his guardians in Koforidua, but he ended up at Dome market, in a suburb of Accra.

According to a police station diary extract dated September 6, 2004, Emmanuel Siade, who goes by the alias Big Joe, took him to the Achimota police station from Dome. He was then handed over to the Women and Juvenile Unit (WAJU) in Accra, where the Social Welfare Unit took him to the Osu Shelter for Abused Children.

"Achimota thought the boy was too small to stay in their cells," said Victoria Natsu, the supervisor at the shelter. The shelter also serves as a remand home for juvenile offenders.

On September 19, while Kofi was having a meal with other children at the shelter, he hurriedly finished his food and ran away.

While Kofi was at the shelter, Social Welfare sent letters to their branches in Kumasi to locate his parents. They still have not been found.

The Commanding Officer of WAJU Accra, Sophia Torpey, said this looks like an abandoned child case.

"The parents are aware by this time," she said. "Some of these parents, they try to run away."

Kofi was next seen in Accra on September 22. He was again picked up by a Good Samaritan and taken to the Osu police station. A week later, during the annual inspection and tour of prisons and cells by the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) on September 30, he was found at the 'counter-back' of the Osu station charge office.

Kofi says that he had been sleeping on the bench, just beside the cells for adult prisoners.

Article 15 of the Constitution states, "a juvenile offender who is kept in lawful custody or detention shall be kept separately from an adult offender."

When the Acting Commissioner of CHRAJ, Anna Bossman, saw the boy, she immediately said her outfit would investigate the case.

"It is not acceptable." She added that children should not be detained at all.

"The child should not be there in the first place," said Beatrice Duncan, a UNICEF Protection Officer. "There has been a total disregard for our laws."

In this particular case, Ms. Duncan thinks the child is obviously in need of special care and protection, and the police should have immediately handed the child over to the Department of Social Welfare.

She said that according to the Criminal Code, children under 12 years of age cannot be charged with crimes. "Even 12, we believe that is too young," said Ms. Bossman.

She added that there is no distinction regarding age, other than the designation of those less than 18 years of age as juveniles. CHRAJ has sent an investigator to ensure the boy is safe.

While police procedures clearly indicate that juvenile offenders should be sent to WAJU and Social Welfare as soon as possible, the Osu District Commander of police Mr. Samuel Obeng-Kyereh defends his intentions.

"I don't have any business of keeping him here," he said.

The commander says that a child of Kofi's age cannot be held culpable for committing a crime. He insists that he was just trying to protect the boy.

"I don't know how such a boy should be sent to a remand home," he added.

He felt that it would be in Kofi's best interest to be off the streets and away from bad company.

A juvenile remand home is a place for young offenders, where they are monitored, trained and rehabilitated. According to Godwin R. Mensah, a social worker with WAJU, remand is for children 12 years and older. At the shelter, Kofi's record indicates that he is 10 years old.

"Because of his own safety he is being kept in the remand wing at the shelter," said Mr. Mensah.

If Kofi is not reunited with his parents, he can be cared for by a surrogate parent or moved to an orphanage. Otherwise, he will have to stay at the remand and shelter home.

To the frustration of the Osu police, WAJU, the Department of Social Welfare and staff at the shelter, the information provided by Kofi is inconsistent.

When he was initially found he had sores and scars, possibly from abuse. He also refused care at the shelter.

Agencies like Social Welfare and CHRAJ continue to find cases of juvenile injustice and lack of due process. These institutional failures combined with widespread cases of bad parenting, have contributed to the disturbing prevalence of children caught up in the criminal justice system.

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