According to Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, “up to present time, the age of criminal responsibility in this country is 8 years. In the United Kingdom, it’s 10 years. The collective wisdom of the Select Committee and of the Government is that it should be 12 years. Some people think it should be 14, like for instance, the Hon. Senator Bacchus-Baptiste. I think there are some persons in social welfare who would agree with that and some disagree. ... And we’re repealing the law dealing with flogging the child, caning the child so there are persons out there who are going to say, well, look at this child who is 12 plus but below 14, what are we going to do? How we going to discipline them?”
Minister with responsibility for Family and Youth Hon. Frederick Stephenson, in his presentation of the second reading of the Child Justice Bill 2019, said the Bill addressed judicial processes for children accused of committing offenses and “aims at protecting the rights of children and for other related matters”. Minister Stephenson disclosed that the Bill “applies to all persons under the age of 18 years alleged to have committed a crime and includes any person who attains the age of 18 years before the proceedings that were instituted against him or her have been concluded. ...persons over 18 but under 21 under direction from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in special circumstances outlined in the Bill.”
With the commencement of the new law, the Juvenile Act will be repealed, Minister Stephenson stated. He went on to say that “a child means a person under the age of 14. Juvenile refers to or means a person under the age of 16 and young person means a person who has attained the age of 14 and is under the age of 16”.
Of special concern to members of the House was the issue of diversion where the alleged child offender does not go through the present justice system. Opposition Senator Hon. Kay Bacchus-Baptiste underscored the need for children to be dealt with early in the justice system, “if possible not to have them arrested or detained so that this Act is supposed to prevent children seeping through the justice system”. She emphasised that a child should not have a criminal record.”
Senator Bacchus-Baptiste also called for a national policy or framework that would enforce the Act and for Police Officers to be trained in this regard. Accordingly, she stated that a burden is placed on the Police to understand the Child Justice Act. The Opposition Senator further stated that the Act will be in vain if such framework is absent. Magistrates should have training in child welfare, Bacchus-Baptiste said. She said the presentation of the Act is late but commendable.
Leader of the Opposition, Dr. Godwin Friday, expressed his support for the Child Justice Bill. Dr. Friday stated that “the legislation here now gives a second and third chance to correct and to have those persons move into a more constructive future.” Friday added that youths involved in criminal activities have started on a “path that essentially pushes you further along that life and may hamper your future for the rest of your life. This legislation helps to provide a systematic and, as long as all the measures that my colleague, Senator Baptiste, mentioned are put in place, Mr. Speaker, that those measures would help to give effect to the diversion, some of which already takes place, which will have much more meaning because the resources ought to be there and because there are specific processes set out in the legislation as to what ought to be done.”
In his summation, Minister Stephenson explained that the Child Justice Bill is two years in the making. He addressed a query raised by Senator Hon. Israel Bruce about the make-up of the Child Justice Committee (CJC). Senator Bruce sought clarification on whether a minister of religion would be on the CJC however Minister Stephenson said no, and that an Attorney with “at least seven years of practice” will sit on the CJC.
The other persons who comprise the CJC are “a magistrate and two social workers”. Minister Stephenson disclosed that the Legislation also provides for the establishment of an “assessment centre and a residential facility for the reception, evaluation/rehabilitation of a child.” The Minister with responsibility for Family and Youth described the Child Justice Bill as a progressive piece of legislation “and today when it is passed” St. Vincent and the Grenadines “will be the first of the OECS countries to pass all of these four pieces of legislation into law.”
The bill received support from both sides of the House. Minister of Agriculture Hon. Saboto Caesar and Senator Hon. Israel Bruce also lent their voices to the debate in support of the Child Justice Bill 2019. To this end, Minister Stephenson thanked all members for their support and contribution to the Bill.
The provisions of the Bill are founded on the OECS Model Child Justice Legislation, an initiative of the OECS Family Law Reform Project.