There are many shameful examples of how we have treated our children. Only a few of these are ever made public. The Jamaica Observer reported on one case of a 14-year-old who ran away from home and ended up locked away in an adult correctional facility for a year.
“The police told my grandmother to leave me at the station. They never told me where I was going. When I reached and saw the big gate, I said me just go way fi two day and me a go prison?” she said.
Talk to lawyers in the system, and they will tell you about the injustices, large and small, that children suffer when they come into contact with the justice system. Children locked up for minor offences, forced to miss school, subject to the less than stellar conditions in our correctional facilities. Jamaica’s Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon-Harrison told me in an interview of examples where child defendants and victims attending court have to hear their names bellowed out by the police officer on court duty, in the same way adults are treated. She also spoke of child victims in court being carelessly placed next to family members of the defendants accused of abusing them.
It is an accepted principle of treating with children in all spheres that they deserve special protection because of their vulnerability. Article 3 on the Convention on the Rights of the child says, for example:
“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
And of course, it is the poor and uneducated who suffer most. After all, parents with more money can afford to hire lawyers to protect the interests of their children. Many of our poorer children appear in court unrepresented.
“The Office of the Children’s Advocate or Duty Counsel on the Legal Aid list is to be immediately contacted by the police where a child suspect is arrested and does not have legal representation.”
Drawing heavily on international treaties and instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the Beijing Rules), the Guidelines deal with all areas in which a child will interact with the justice system prior to incarceration. The Guidelines also address not just the situation of child suspects and defendants but also how child victims and child witnesses should be treated.
For example, Guideline 27 (4):
“The court should guard against and prevent the intimidation and harassment of witnesses by lawyers through methods such as (a) asking irrelevant questions, (b) confusing the child with repetitive and/or rapid questions, repeated interruption to responses or by demanding unrealistically specific times and details (c) shouting at the child.”
On the questioning of children, Guideline 27 (2) states:
“Given that the attention span of children can be limited, the court should curtail lengthy questioning sessions.”
Guideline 21 (1): “Children should be transported in vehicles with adequate ventilation and light, and in conditions that in no way subject them to hardship or indignity.”
In relation to Decisions and Sentencing, Guideline 28 (2) says:
(b) Restrictions on the personal liberty of the juvenile should be imposed only after careful consideration and should be limited to the minimum possible time…
(d) The emphasis of the court when dealing with child offenders, should always be the objective of rehabilitating the child.”
The Guidelines, issued under the Children’s Advocate’s powers under the Child Care and Protection Act, were launched on Universal Children’s Day, November 20, the day the United Nations Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989. The new Guidelines are not legally binding, true. But neither were the Beijing Rules, and they have created a highly respected framework for the treatment of children who come in conflict with the law. With the necessary groundwork, so too could these Guidelines.