St. Vincent and the Grenadines has passed a law that sets the age of criminal responsibility at age 12, up from age 8.
“That is to say, a child under 12 shall not be prosecuted for an offence that he or she is alleged to have committed,” Minister of National Mobilisation, Frederick Stephenson said in presenting the bill, which was passed into law with opposition support on Thursday.
“A child age 12 but under the age of 14 years shall be presumed not to have the capacity to appreciate the difference between right and wrong unless this is proved otherwise,” he told Parliament.
Under the law, neither corporal punishment nor a sentence of life imprisonment can be imposed on a child.
The Child Justice Act also makes provision for establishing criminal responsibility.
Prosecution of a child age 12 but less than 14 years old must be on the basis of certification of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).
The new law presumes that no child under the age of 12 can be guilty of an offence.
Stephenson said that the Child Justice Act will apply to persons under 18 years old who are alleged to have committed a crime.
It, however, also applies to any person who turns 18 before the proceedings that had been instituted are concluded.
The minister said that the law also applies to persons over 18 but under 21, on the direction of DPP in special circumstances.
The new law replaces the Juveniles Act, which describes a child as a person under the age of 14, a juvenile as a person 16 and under, and a young person as a person who is between 14 and 16 years old.
The Child Justice Act provides for the establishment of the Child Justice Committee (CJC), which will be responsible for exercising the powers and discharging the duties conferred on it under the bill.
The CJC will be comprised of a magistrate, a minister of religion, and two social workers.
The law also speaks to the establishment of assessment centres and a residential facility.
It says that to secure attendance of a child for an initial inquiry, police can apprehend, issue a summons, or a written notice. The Child Justice Act further details the instances when each process may be used.
It says that an assessment of a child in conflict with the law must be completed and a report submitted to the DPP prior to the initial inquiry before the CJC.
An assessment is intended to make recommendation regarding release, the possibility of diversion and the placement of that child in a secure residential facility, the minister said.
Under the law, diversion refers to the removal from the formal court procedures, cases of children alleged to have committed an offence and the adoption of informal procedures in relation to such children.
The laws says that diversion is intended to encourage the child to be accountable for the harm caused, meet the particular needs of the child, and to promote the reintegration of the child into the family and the community.
Diversion also provides an opportunity for those affected by the harm caused by the child to express their views on its impact on them.
It also encourages the rendering of the victim to some symbolic benefit or the delivery of some object as compensation for the harm caused by the child, promote reconciliation with the persons affected by the harm, prevent stigmatising of the child and adverse consequences following from being subject to the criminal justice system and prevent the child from having a criminal record, Stephenson said.
The bill sets out conditions for diversion and the diversion options available, including an oral or written apology to the specified person or institution, a formal caution without conditions, and placement under supervision or guidance for a specified period.
The conditions for diversion also include the issuing of various orders, including family time order, referral to counselling or therapy for a specified period, or payment of symbolic compensation to an affected person or an institution.
This symbolic compensation could be the giving of an object owned, made or bought by the child, or restitution of a specified object to a specified person where the object concerned may be returned or restored.
Other options include community service without payment, provision of some service or benefit to a specified victim in an amount that the family of the child is able to afford, referral to a programme with a residential element, and, in instances where the child is not attending school, compulsory attendance of a vocational or academic institutions.
The law includes other sentencing options, such as community-based sentences and restorative justice sentences – which promote reconciliation, restitution, and responsibility through the involvement of a child, the parent of the child, the members of the child’s family and the victim and the community.
Sentencing also involves corrective supervision, a sentence to be imposed on a child with a compulsory residential requirement, referral of a child to a secure residential facility, referral of a child to prison, a penalty in lieu of a fine or imprisonment, and compensation to be paid by the parent of the child.
Under the Child Justice Act, information attained at the assessment is not admissible in court proceedings against the child.
The child’s parent or an appropriate adult and lawyer will be allowed to attend the assessment.
An appropriate adult, under the law, is a member of the child’s family or a custodian or guardian of the child who is over 18 but is not a parent of the child.
The law says that the state must provide the child with legal representation if his or her parents or an appropriate adult did not appoint any lawyer for the child.
“Mr. Speaker, this piece of legislation complements the four pieces of what the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) refers to as the model family laws.”
He noted that his government has passed the other three pieces of legislation, namely the Child Care and Adoption Bill in 2010, the Status of Children’s Act in 2012, and the Domestic Violence Act in 2015.
“It must be noted that St. Vincent and the Grenadines has gone a very long way in enacting most of these [pieces of] legislation. I believe that we are further ahead than all the other member states of the OECS,” the minister further stated.
“Mr. Speaker, this bill will also have some very serious financial implications for the Ministry of Finance and I know that the permanent secretary and the staff in the Ministry of National Mobilisation have been discussing personnel and staff to carry this bill forward and that the discussions are ongoing.
“It is our hope, Mr. Speaker that the positions to be created under this new bill when it becomes an act will help us to improve the status of children in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and ensure that we have the required capacity and a secure residential facility where we can take care of the diversion process of the children who become in conflict with the law.”