Adult Courts vs. Juvenile Courts: Who Really Acts in the "Best Interest" of the Child?
By Attorney Tavarrie D. Smith, Youth Justice Specialist
The juvenile justice debate was recently thrust back into the spotlight here in The Bahamas when a 12th grade student was stabbed and died during an afterschool fight. Shortly after the unfortunate incident, photos of the lifeless victim's body and a cell phone recording of the fight surfaced on social media.Outrage called for the juvenile attackers to be given a death sentence (thankfully it is still illegal to sentence a juvenile to death). The 15, 16 and 17 year old attackers, also students of the same school, were charged before an adult Magistrate Court in the presence of a media packed court room. The Magistrate said she saw no reason to remove the media. Crying uncontrollably as the charge of murder was read against them the boys were consoled by their parents. Given the nature of the charge, the Magistrate had no jurisdiction to grant bail and all three boys were remanded into custody. The 17 year old had now turned 18 by the time of his court appearance and he was remanded to the island's only adult prison facility while the 15 and 16 year old were remanded to the juvenile detention facility. The case has been adjourned to a date in January 2016 where they will be served with a voluntary bill of indictment – a process by which a prosecutor will automatically transfer their case to an adult high court.
Several issues concerning the treatment of children in conflict with the law arose in this case, and will likely continue to arise as the case moves through the adult court system. The most pressing of them all is whether in fact these boys ought to be tried as adults in the high court. Despite the fact that The Bahamas has a properly constituted juvenile court equipped with professionals and resources to act in the best interest of the child – a juvenile does not have an inherent right to be tried in the juvenile court. Serious cases are ordinarily transferred to the adult court where juveniles are exposed to adult sentences. Unfortunately, this practice is not unique to The Bahamas as the Caribbean region shares a similar practice of treating children as adults when in conflict with the law.
There is an abundance of research and authorities out there that clearly demonstrate that children are better suited in a child appropriate court that recognizes that youth justice is always and must always be individualized. It must be based on what is in the best interest for "that" child.Further, youth justice is rehabilitation more than any other kind of justice and we all know that the adult criminal system primarily leans towards punitive punishment. Concepts like rehabilitation and reintegration are foreign to adult courts dealing with juveniles because often times the "crime" overshadows the age of the offender. When the crime is a heinous or violent one, society tends to forget that it is a child involved. Research in adolescent brain development is now influencing American courts in how it deals with children in conflict with the law, but the Caribbean region has a long way to go. Apart from the umbrella principles like Articles 2, 3, 5, 6 and 12 of the Unite Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 40.3 specifically calls upon Member States to establish institutions like juvenile courts to deal with children in conflict with the law. For the most parts we have done this, we have juvenile courts, but instead we have robbed them of the power and jurisdiction to deal with the uniqueness of a juvenile offender.
Caribbean youth in conflict with the law are daily losing their sense of dignity and worth when they find themselves before a criminal court. Often we fail to treat child offenders in a manner that is consistent with the child's age and forget to promote rehabilitation and reintegration for children who are still young enough to return to society and become productive members. Juvenile court officials not only have the proper skills to handle young offenders, they also have the right temperament to recognize any extenuating circumstance that could also help to rehabilitate the offender. Every juvenile court worker knows that long-term care and follow up is necessary with rehabilitating a young offender and adult criminal court judges have neither the time nor resources to follow-up with a convict. No one knows what will become of the three boys in my story above, but what is certain, is that their chance of rehabilitation and reintegration was drastically reduced the moment they were charged as adults. Wherever a child finds himself before a court, regardless of the nature of the offence, as a community, our approach should always be a holistic multidiscipline one that always focuses on the child's best interest. All Caribbean states have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child but more must be done to take the necessary legislative action to implement the rights of children in conflict with the law, they are after all ... still children.
About the Author:
Attorney Tavarrie D. Smith is a noted youth justice specialist who has presented various presentations regionally and internationally on the challenges of juvenile justice in the Caribbean. He serves as the Executive Director for a non-profit advocacy group that provides legal-aid service to children in conflict with the law in The Bahamas.
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