Looking out for children in the Jamaican justice system

Underprivileged children exposed to crime at an early age are unfortunately more likely to be caught up in the justice system. For them, the response of police and the justice system will determine whether they become permanently crimimalised at a young age, or go on to become productive members of society.

Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) have already begun working with children in the justice system and so it was natural for UNICEF to want to partner with them in our new country programme. To gain a better picture of what this two-year partnership hopes to achieve we sat down with JFJ advocacy manager Rodje Malcolm.

What does JFJ want to achieve for these children?

“We want to help close many of the gaps that presently affect our child protection and juvenile justice systems. JFJ’s partnership with UNICEF allows us to address a suite of unfinished business in the policy and legislative arena, while expanding our work to directly engage youth groups and undertake some new and exciting research.”

Is the social environment forcing children into crime?

“At JFJ, we are concerned that Jamaica’s social environment predisposes certain children, especially poor children, to becoming entangled in the criminal justice system. We all need to fully recognize how inter-related poverty, education, crime, and youth development are.

“It’s no surprise, for example, that the statistical profile of a child in conflict with the law is a boy who has been suspended or expelled from school, and lives in a high-crime community that also has police abuse issues.

“So much research tells us that by increasing opportunities for children at an early age can address many of the juvenile justice problems that are really symptoms of a larger problem.”

How does the wider society view these children?

“One problem in advocacy is overcoming the sympathy deficit. There’s an abundance of support for child rights in the abstract, but that oftentimes vanishes when people are faced with children in state care who don’t immediately evoke public sympathy – like children with behavioural issues or children accused of crimes.

“So, this isn’t another generic child rights project, it’s about the children most at risk, who don’t always fit the narrative of children who need help. The rights of the child in some unknown residential facility and the child in a windowless police lockup don’t change just because we can’t see them. They are just as deserving of our investment, care, and our protection. It’s how we treat these children that indicates how just our society truly is.”

Is society making a bad situation worse for them? 

“Let’s just bust the myth that there is some shadow population of criminal children wreaking havoc on society, who deserve to be locked away. Children enter society as blank slates; their outputs are the product of our inputs. Children who are in conflict with the law, most of them for non-violent offences, oftentimes reflect the impact of various deprivations that exist in the larger society. Children also have various experiences as they develop, including psycho-social disorders that we label as juvenile delinquency.”

Is greater focus needed on social rather than police work?

“These issues need to be managed as developmental and behavioural problems and are oftentimes exacerbated by heavy criminal justice responses. These provide little actual benefit to society or to the child’s development; they cost more for less, and oftentimes cause harm. So, reclaiming the humanity of these children is a core goal of our juvenile justice advocacy.”

What has JFJ already done for children caught in the justice system?

“In 2013 JFJ brought a landmark human rights case to the Inter-American commission of Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of children detained in adult prisons in Jamaica. That international tribunal ruled that the rights of children were being violated, and ordered the separation of children from adults in prisons. The success of that entire campaign was deeply encouraging, and increased the speed at which children were being removed from the adult facilities.”

What results can we expect from the partnership?

“Our very first goal for the partnership is to bring together various groups involved concerned about children in the justice system in a working group that will consolidate much of the advocacy that civil society is doing. We want to minimize duplications and scale up the impact of civil society initiatives.

“Together with our policy and legal work we’re going to produce two new studies: on children in residential state care; the juvenile justice system. We want to improve how decisions are made by using research, especially when those decisions have a profound impact on the most vulnerable in society: children.”

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