Child Rights Com­mis­sion helps over 400 ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers to ac­cess le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

Since 2015, the Rights of the Child Com­mis­sion (RCC) has been able to help more than 400 ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers ac­cess le­gal aid through fund­ing from United Na­tions Chil­dren’s Fund (UNICEF) and as­sis­tance from the Guyana Le­gal Aid Clinic.

Dur­ing an in­ter­view with this newspaper, RCC Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Amar Pan­day and In­ves­ti­gat­ing Of­fi­cer An­dre Gon­salves said that the ben­e­fi­cia­ries were able to have their cases re­viewed.

Pan­day ex­plained that in 2015, the RCC had com­menced its Youth Em­pow­er­ment and Per­sonal De­vel­op­ment ses­sions at the Sophia Hold­ing Cen­tre and dur­ing its first work­shop it would have met 15-year-old Ian Henry, who was charged with mur­der in 2011.

“He re­mained there un­til he was 17, and then he was trans­ferred to the Camp Street Prison be­cause he was ap­proach­ing adult­hood. Af­ter the up­heaval at Camp Street, he was trans­ferred to the Timehri Prison,” Pan­day said, while point­ing out that from the mo­ment the RCC en­coun­tered him in 2015 to 2016, it was work­ing as­sid­u­ously in for­mu­lat­ing a plan to not only get le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion for him but also for the hun­dreds of other chil­dren who were see­ing their rights tram­pled upon.

Pan­day said the RCC dis­cov­ered that over 95% of the chil­dren be­ing held at dif­fer­ent hold­ing cen­tres and prisons around the coun­try were be­ing de­nied their right to le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

The dis­cov­ery spurred it on and an ap­proach was made to UNICEF, from which it was able to se­cure $1 mil­lion for the Guyana Le­gal Aid Clinic, which had also in­di­cated that it was will­ing to help.

“We had to ap­proach the re­spec­tive pro­gramme of­fi­cer and then the res­i­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tive who checked to see if it is in con­so­nance with the coun­try pro­gramme, and it did fall un­der the area of child pro­tec­tion, and they re­leased the money to the le­gal aid clinic,” Gon­salves ex­plained, while high­light­ing that the process to se­cure the fund­ing took some time.

With the fund­ing se­cured, vis­its to the dif­fer­ent cen­tres and prisons sub­se­quently com­menced.

“We wanted to see if chil­dren at the cen­tres were in­ter­ested in having their cases re­viewed, and some of those cases were re­viewed. Some of the par­ents of the chil­dren in­di­cated that they were not in­ter­ested,” Pan­day said.

How­ever, Henry and oth­ers were fi­nally able to have le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which, for him, re­sulted in the Di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Prose­cu­tions’ of­fice dis­miss­ing his case as there was not suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence be­ing pre­sented against him to keep him in­car­cer­ated.

“The fund­ing ex­panded as a re­sult of the suc­cess. To­day, there should be over 400 cases that they have been able to have a sit down with for le­gal ad­vice,” Gon­salves said, while high­light­ing that the im­por­tant thing is not about having cases dis­missed, but giv­ing the young of­fend­ers an op­por­tu­nity to be able to sit with a le­gal ad­vi­sor and have their cases re­viewed.

Gon­salves ex­plained that they were able to do a study to show where crimes are be­ing com­mit­ted and what type. They have since found that most of the crimes that are com­mit­ted by youths are vic­tim­less and non­fi­nan­cial crimes.

“I’ve no­ticed that more and more cases are be­ing dis­missed for lack of ev­i­dence, one or two were sent back to the NOC [New Op­por­tu­nity Corps],” Gon­salves said.

He also pointed out that a case was brought to them by the head of the NOC, who had re­quested that it be re­viewed. Gon­salves ex­plained that af­ter they did the review, it was dis­cov­ered that the pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer that was at­tached to the case did not do a re­port.

“The re­port was done by a Child­care and Pro­tec­tion Agency of­fi­cer and it was a dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stance. The Pro­ba­tion Of­fi­cer could not go be­fore the court and make rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the re­port. Most chil­dren that come into con­flict with the law all cen­tre on poverty,” he said, while high­light­ing that the entire state ap­pa­ra­tus and other stake­hold­ers need to come to­gether and pool their en­er­gies and re­sources to ad­dress the is­sues.

De­spite be­ing able to pro­vide le­gal as­sis­tance to hun­dreds of chil­dren, Gon­salves high­lighted that they faced sev­eral is­sues, with the para­mount one be­ing the in­abil­ity to pro­cure an ex­pe­ri­enced lawyer with so lit­tle fund­ing.

“Lawyers in pri­vate prac­tice don’t like to give their time and that is so sad­den­ing. That is why we ended up where we had to re­visit our own part­ner – UNICEF – to say that I have this case, would you be in­ter­est­ing in pro­vid­ing fund­ing. We were us­ing two law stu­dents from the Univer­sity of Guyana and a lawyer, but he didn’t have the ex­pe­ri­ence to do a mur­der case,” Gon­salves said.

He added that the RCC is re­stat­ing the call for speedy tri­als, es­pe­cially in in­stances where there is in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence, and are ask­ing the po­lice to en­sure that they re­mind young of­fend­ers that they have a right to le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

“The chil­dren who com­mit crimes in Guyana are not nec­es­sar­ily de­viants or delin­quents, and in most cases they are re­spond­ing to mul­ti­di­men­sional poverty. There is a need for a more struc­tured and per­ma­nent so­lu­tion and it’s now left to the state ap­pa­ra­tus to fix the prob­lem,” Pan­day added. (Dhanash Ram­roop)

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