St. Lucia, like other OECS nations, is a signatory to the Convention on the rights of the child. Age capability provides guidelines for the determination of whether minors under the age of 18 can be held legally culpable for their crimes. As a result, many countries are revisiting their existing child-protection laws to provide greater protection of children’s rights. Juvenile legal reforms have been made to advance the rights of children.
The OECS Juvenile Justice Reform Project which began in October 2011, embarked on a review of the legal and regulatory framework for the Justice System in the member states. The project was to advance the legislative agenda and work towards the reform and harmonization of our legal systems so that they become consistent with modern practices within juvenile justice. Its aim was to harmonize juvenile justice legislation, regulations and policies for the OECS region. The project provided overall modernization of the administration of the juvenile justice system through training, technical assistance, and information sharing. It advocated common approaches for improvement such as incorporating restorative approaches to offenders, alternative sentencing options, and mediation as a viable option for resolving disputes.
In addition it should be remembered that juvenile offence reports have shown that children’s exposure to violence, whether as victims or witnesses, is often associated with long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm. Children exposed to violence are also at a higher risk of engaging in criminal behaviour later in life and becoming part of a cycle of violence. Children exposed to violence are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic disorders; fail or have difficulty in school; and become delinquent and engage in criminal behaviour.
Felicia Browne, a children’s rights advocate adds that she supports the Justice Minister’s concern that teenagers now are different from what they were in previous generations; and as such the juvenile courts should be revised to fit their status. Browne adds that the incident that sparked the Minister’s comment warrants a full investigation to conclusively assess the circumstances of the young offender and her rights as a minor.
Browne further notes that countries like St. Lucia have continued to educate our youths and children on their rights where the law is concerned, and also inform them that there are institutions and agencies available to which they can report any activity that they believe are of criminal intent. We should continue to encourage them to report such matters to the police or a trusted family member. She states that the police must work closely with child protection services to ensure that mandatory reporting of all juvenile cases. In cases where children under the age of 18 years have committed criminal acts, the State is charged with the responsibility to ensure that the rights of the child are upheld and protected within the penal system. For instance, a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in the prison systems or the housing juvenile offenders with adult prisoners.
She adds that according to the Convention, Article 19, children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect. Further Article 40 , of the Convention states that children who are accused of breaking the law have the right to legal help and fair treatment in a justice system that respects their rights. Governments are required to set a minimum age below which children cannot be held criminally responsible and to provide minimum guarantees for the fairness and quick resolution of judicial or alternative proceedings. However, Browne maintains that the legal system might have several different ways of dealing with juvenile offences. The OECS Juvenile Justice proposal can provide guidance in ensuring that the rights of children do not contradict existing juvenile laws.