New Democratic Party’s Senator Kay Bacchus-Baptiste has dismissed the government’s passage of the Child Justice Act as merely a “PR stunt” meant to hoodwink the global community. “How would it look if we’re on the UN Security Council but we refuse to pass UN mandates, especially when those mandates concern children?” she said in an interview last Saturday.
She was at the time responding to queries regarding the Gonsalves led administration’s failure to properly finance the recently approved Child Justice Act which is awaiting proclamation.
Vincentian lawmakers convened last December to pass into active legislation the Child Justice Act. This new Act is meant to not only bring the country into compliance with United Nations conventions and OECS led commitments.
It is most importantly configured to manage the “judicial process for children accused of committing offences.” The Act, therefore, protects the rights of children, especially those, that come into conflict with the law.
Most notably, the new law increased the age of criminal responsibility – the minimum age that an individual can be charged, arrested or otherwise held accountable for alleged offences – from eight (8) years old up to twelve (12). As such a child under twelve years old would not be prosecuted for alleged offences. Additionally, the Act outlaws corporal punishment as well as life sentences for minors.
The Act also looks at alternative measures to address concerns relating to alleged offenders including securing attendance of a child at an initial enquiry and the establishment of assessment centres and residential facilities “for the reception, evaluation or rehabilitation of a child,” Minister Fredrick Stephenson explained in his December 27th parliamentary debate.
Minister Stephenson, whose ministerial portfolio includes Social Development, National Mobilisation et al, also disclosed that a Child Justice Committee is to be set up to guide what would be the “informal” judicial process. This is in support of a principal tenet of the new law dubbed Diversion.
Under the Act, Diversion allows for the Child Justice Committee (comprising of a magistrate, a religious minister and two social workers) to remove alleged offending minors’ cases from the formal court room proceedings to “minimize children’s contact with the criminal justice system,” Senator Kay Bacchus-Baptiste further clarified in support of the Act’s passage.
Stephenson, in his December debate, acknowledged the financial significance of implementing the Child Justice Act. “This bill would have some very serious implications for the Ministry of Finance and I know that the Permanent Secretary and staff in the Ministry of National Mobilization have been discussing personnel and staff to carry this bill forward and that the discussions are ongoing,” he said.
South Windward MP Stephenson, in that same speech also said, “It is our hope, Mr. Speaker, that the positions to be created under this bill, when it becomes an Act, would help us to improve the status of children in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and to ensure that we have the required capacity and a secured residential facility where we can take care of the diversion process of the children who become in conflict with the law.”
In her December 27th debate Bacchus-Baptiste supported the precepts enshrined in the, then, Bill saying, “the most important part of passing this Child Justice Act is to have a national policy, a national framework that would make the Act work.”
The West St. George MP-hopeful then looked at several cost centres that must be financed in order to make the Act effective in its entirety. Some of those costs include: child friendly detention/assessment centres, additional social workers, trainings for police and other professionals who may have to interact with alleged offending minors as well as the compulsory provision of legal aid to all alleged offending minors.
“Unless the next thing that this government does is to create that national policy framework, this Act is in vain.” Bacchus-Baptiste stressed last December.
Fast forward to January 22 and Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves’ presentation of the 2020 Estimates of Revenue and Expenses; he is reported to have told parliament “the government will build on its track record of improving the quality and quantity of persons in its employ.” He then proceeded to list sundry new civil service positions approved by his Ministry as part of the estimated $1.12 billion allocated for spending in this year.
In her response to the proposed estimated expenses, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste said “I searched the estimates to see if there’s anything at all to support this serious implementation of the Child Justice Act and I cannot find it.” The Senator then reminded the House that both sides agreed, in the December debate, that it would cost a notable sum to implement the Child Justice Act. “But I note that there is no money at all projected in the estimates up to 2022 for this Child Justice Act,” Bacchus-Baptiste highlighted.
She was guided to page 239 of the current estimates from which she discerned some 3 new social worker positions, 4 child protection officers and 5 maintenance workers were allotted to the Social Development Ministry “…that is what you say is your projection? Are we for real? In the normal operation of business in St. Vincent and the Grenadines we needed more social workers. So I take this to mean that you recognize that fact. I don’t see how this can bring the Child Justice Act into operation. This is cosmetic… It is too little, too little,” Bacchuss-Baptiste said.
She concluded by disclosing a very recent case that required her legal services the previous Sunday. Senator Bacchus-Baptiste told the House of a minor who was incarcerated at a police station holding cell “for the weekend” in illustration of the dire seriousness of the government’s failure to enact the Child Justice Act.
Minister Frederick Stephenson declined to offer further debate on the issue.