The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says it is deeply concerned that the proposed amendment to the Child Care and Protection Act would require children convicted of murder to serve a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.
UNICEF, in a statement, conceded that it was invited to address the Joint Select Committee of Parliament on Tuesday (June 20), to present its position. UNICEF’s position is that these amendments are contrary to Jamaica’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
“Additionally, the amendments will not contribute to public safety, and are counter to the well-established global evidence on how to address serious offending by children effectively,” the statement continued.
Acknowledging the concerns of citizens about the high crime rate in Jamaica, UNICEF Country Representative, Olga Isaza in her presentation said, “UNICEF is also concerned about the country’s murder rate that is ranked highest among 22 Latin America and Caribbean countries.”
She noted that this statistic was mentioned in the reasons cited for the amendment.
“The effectiveness of the consequences imposed on a person found guilty of murder has to be measured in relation to their capacity in preventing recidivism and in decreasing the murder rate in a sustainable way, which I think is our common goal,” Isaza emphasised.
To develop the argument against the amendment and offer alternatives including the discretionary considerations of judges, UNICEF brought to Jamaica, an international child justice specialist, Shelley Casey who has more than 20 years of experience drafting child justice laws and strategies. She has supported national child justice reforms and trained justice sector professionals in more than 25 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific and the Caribbean.
Explaining UNICEF’s position, Casey outlined six reasons against the amendment, namely:
- Mandatory sentencing violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- Harsh sentences do not deter offending by children;
- The most effective way to ensure public safety is through rehabilitation, not punishment;
- Lengthy mandatory terms of imprisonment are cruel and inhumane and do not recognise children’s greater rehabilitative potential;
- Imprisonment increases the likelihood of re-offending and puts the public at greater risk; and
- A better solution to societal concerns is to invest in the root causes of violent offending.
Casey noted that children engaged in persistent or violent crime are generally influenced by a range of social and environmental risk factors outside of their control, such as family violence, abuse and neglect, trauma, educational exclusion, socio-economic disadvantage, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health issues. Many of these problems are compounded by children’s psychosocial immaturity and their susceptibility to peer pressure and exploitation by adults.
“Imprisonment of children fails,” Casey stressed.
“That is not to say that custodial sentence is never necessary, but it should be for the shortest appropriate time, as stipulated by the CRC,” she pointed out, adding that more time may be required for rehabilitation in some cases but confining children for longer than is necessary fosters further criminality.
Correctional centres often act as “schools of criminality” where children learn more offending strategies and sometimes create life-long friendships with other offenders. This is particularly problematic when children are imprisoned together with adults. “The skills they are developing to survive in a correctional centre are different from what we want them to have,” Casey noted.
UNICEF is calling on the Government to reconsider the proposed amendment in keeping with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Jamaica has ratified. A rigid approach that removes judicial discretion and individualized sentencing will not contribute to public safety or help in controlling the national murder rate.
UNICEF remains committed to continuing our support to Jamaica in its effort to promote universal respect for, and observance of, children’s rights and freedoms and encourages the child justice initiatives such as the National Child Diversion Programme and the training of the security and justice workforce on child-friendly justice and child rights.