Tanaka Mahanya Features Writer
Child rights organisation, Justice for Children (JCT), recently held a meeting on the proposed Child Justice Bill.
At the centre of debate was a closer look at the progress and gaps in the draft Bill, all in an effort to provide child offenders with a favourable criminal justice system which caters for their special needs.
According Dr Musa Kika, a lawyer with Justice for Children, the draft Bill seeks to establish a distinct criminal justice system for such children so that due protections accorded to them by the Constitution are observed.
From what emanated from the meeting, it was clear that the Bill, unlike the laws currently in place, for example Children’s Act, should keep children from the harmful effects of the formal criminal and penal systems.
Although the Bill considers the building of specialised courts which are child-sensitive, with specially trained personnel, it leaves room for cases other than treason, murder and rape to be tried in ordinary magistrates’ courts which do not highly uphold the needs of the young.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) notes that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time.
The proposed Child Justice Bill allows for imprisonment of a child for up to 15 years, which is too steep and does not afford children treatment that takes their age, immaturity and vulnerability into account.
Trial for a child can stretch for up to two years, if the case may include treason, murder and theft, which affects the child’s intellectual being. The Bill does not specify time limits within which child justice cases must be heard and concluded, thereby failing to provide real and enforceable standards of rapidity in treatment of cases.
As Pre-Trial Diversion Programme national coordinator Ms Sandra Sanyanga puts it, the Bill has to bring out measures to reduce juvenile crimes through social workers, other than just talking of issues when crime is committed.
She further suggests the provision of separate rooms where interviews for children take place to ensure that there is confidentiality between the police and the child offender.
Although there is the Victim Friendly Unit (VFU) which deals with matters of sexual nature, children-tolerant groups have to be formed to guide children along the way in order to avoid crime.
Department of Social Welfare CATCH Trust legal officer Mr Chenjerai Chigumbura believes the Child Justice Bill does not bring to light any special treatment when dealing with child offenders who live with disabilities.
The rule that young offenders deprived of liberty should be separated from adults implies that such offenders should not be placed in an adult prison or other facility for adults.
The placement of children in adult prisons or jails affects their basic safety, well-being, and their future ability to remain free of crime.
Childline programmes development and support manager Ms Ratidzai Moyo points out an interesting issue, that the country only has one juvenile jail in Gweru, which makes it difficult to accommodate the whole country, hence more prisons should be constructed.
Children are in some cases transported to different courts in the same vehicles with adults who take the opportunity to coach them into engaging in crime.
The Bill should provide adequate infrastructure to ensure that children who have committed crime and are incarcerated live independently from adults.