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Another way is possible

Sunday, December 16, 2012    

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The following article was submitted by Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ).

Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ) is collaborating with several organisations and individuals to keep the nation's focus on the situation with our children in conflict with the law and those in need of care and protection.

On December 10, 2012, in honour of International Human Rights Day, we held a public forum on 'Accountability and Governance for Children in the Justice System'. The topic, though chosen months ago, proved very timely as it followed closely on the public concern and outrage raised by the death of 16-year-old Vanessa Wint in the Horizon Adult Remand Centre.

The questions raised by Vanessa Wint's death have been many and the answers (what answers there have been) from responsible officials too often disheartening. Why are children being held in adult correctional facilities? Why are there so many children in correctional facilities for prolonged periods for non-violent offences? How can a child who was known to be suicidal have been left to harm herself? What educational and psychosocial support are these troubled children receiving, of what quality, how often and to what level?

What we have learnt, from a study done by the Office of the Children's Advocate, is that approximately 50 per cent of children in remand and correctional institutions are there for non-violent offences, including an astonishing 26 per cent of them for being "uncontrollable" (a non-defined and non-criminal behaviour) or for running away.

Translated into raw numbers, the Commissioner of Corrections Lt Col Prendergast told us at the forum, this equates to 326 children in correctional and remand centres, of whom 77 are there simply for being "uncontrollable" and a further six are there because they are in need of "care and protection".

One wonders how our leaders can think that a prison is the right place to send a child who needs "care and protection". When we take away those who are NOT there because they committed any crime, we have a further 18 per cent of them who are there for non-violent offences including the sale and use of drugs, breaking into a store or residence and stealing.

Yet the commissioner of corrections suggested, at the forum, that we have NO recourse but to ensure we lock up the "dangerous" children he has in custody — though he was hard-pressed to find more than 100 of the over 300 children in care who had committed any violent crime.

The commissioner is not alone in trying to justify the State's deplorable treatment of our children who are in conflict with the law or in need of care and protection. The Child Development Agency (CDA) seems not in the least perturbed that many of the children who end up in corrections have spent significant portions of their lives in State care homes or under their supervision. Nor does it feel it has a duty to try and provide care and services to those being held in prisons and remand centers.

The Office of the Children's Advocate seems unable to define for itself any meaningful intervention strategy to deal with the systemic failures and to insist that the State agencies end their practice of breaching local and international laws and norms by incarcerating children in adult prisons.

Our judges as well are too often quick to incarcerate children whose parents or guardians bring them before the court because they are "uncontrollable". Too often the Court orders remand for these children to correctional facilities (where they often end up in the same facilities as adults) when what is needed by the children are true places of care and protection and services to address their complex behavioural issues.

And let us not even mention the excuse of "lack of resources" so glibly thrown around at every request for a change of policy, or a change of paradigm or simply a change of heart. It was Nelson Mandela who said that "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." What is the picture of Jamaica's soul that our treatment of children paints?

Another Way is Possible

One of the purposes of JFJ's forum on December 10 was to show those with responsibility for the care of our children that another way is possible. Our special guest speaker was Sheila Mitchell, chief probation officer in Santa Clara County, San Jose, California.

Santa Clara County is comparable in population size to Jamaica and has both very wealthy residents as well as enclaves of poverty, drug dealing and crime. The programme that Ms Mitchell introduced into Santa Clara County for dealing with juvenile offenders has been judged as a 'best practice' and is a stark contrast to Jamaica's approach to children in the justice system.

The model focuses on diversion of children with non-violent or minor offences into community-based programmes and providing smaller, rehabilitation-centred facilities for those convicted of serious offences. They work with families, partner agencies and the community to provide youth with the skills to fulfil their needs in a socially responsible manner.

When Ms Mitchell took over as chief probation officer, there were 364 children in the custody of the correctional services. Like Jamaica now, only about 30 per cent of those children were there for serious crimes including murder and arson, some 25 per cent were there for other property crimes, approximately 10 per cent for drugs and weapons charges and the rest for miscellaneous offences including repeat offences.

The programme was based on a 'correctional' rather than 'rehabilitative' model of management of troubled juveniles and relied on lock up, regimentation and autocratic rules as the means of achieving behavioural compliance for what the system described as 'inmate offenders'. According to Ms Mitchell, family and community were seen as problems and the focus of the "majors, lieutenants and correctional officers" was on exerting 'control' on those in their custody.

This model should sound familiar to us. It is instructive that this model of juvenile corrections cost Santa Clara county US$2,569,491 per year and resulted in a high number of violent incidents, escapes and a recidivism/failure rate of 40 per cent.

What Ms Mitchell introduced was a complete paradigm shift. Juvenile 'inmate offenders' became 'youth' cared for by directors and counsellors rather than correctional officers. Structure and order replaced 'regiment and rules' and the goals became 'safety first' and 'internalised change' by the youth, rather than 'lock up' and 'compliance'.

This change required a complete redevelopment of her staff to be able to make the shift from correctional officer to counsellor and a re-orientation of the existing facility from dormitory cells into small 'family style' units in which the children could receive counselling, education and support. It also required some shift of attention to the community and family to provide them with support, counselling and help to be able to support and nurture their children, not only while incarcerated but on their release.

It also meant working with judges and social workers to ensure that fewer children were sent into incarceration but were instead provided with appropriate services in the community and home.

This change of programme has been exceedingly successful. The numbers of children in custody have fallen since 2005 from 306 to 154. They have been able to eliminate 150 beds for juveniles in secure facilities. A facility for girls has had to be closed for lack of need. There has been a 63 per cent reduction in programme violations and a 50 per cent reduction in new arrests one year after exit, and the average number of violent incidents per child while in corrections has fallen from 10 to two.

Contrast that with Jamaica's programme where increasing numbers of children are placed in adult, correctional facilities with limited opportunities for counselling, education, training or other rehabilitation and limited family and community involvement.

But what about resources?

In Santa Clara, their costs have gone down, the violence in facilities has decreased, they have been able to close some facilities and the outcomes for the children, families and community have vastly (and measurably) improved.

Currently in Jamaica, the budget for maintaining juvenile correctional institutions is $798.2 million per annum. Based on the number of children, this means that Jamaica is spending over $2 million per annum for each child incarcerated. There can be little debate that the costs are significantly outweighing the benefits in terms of the outcomes for the majority of children.

In comparison, the cost for children in CDA-run homes or 'places of safety' (a misnomer if ever there was one) is in the region of $700,000 per child per annum and the appropriate support for each child could be provided by the Government health services at no additional costs.

It costs $320,000 to maintain a child in a privately run children's home. The remaining funds saved from the existing budgets being spent to keep a child in a correctional institution could instead be directed towards meeting costs of behaviour modification, intensive counselling and psycho-educational support appropriate to their particular need, utilising a properly structured mix of government and volunteer services.

To place children in foster care costs the state $4,000 per month/child, though that figure is so ridiculously inadequate as to be laughable. Yet many foster families make the best of what they receive and take the best care of the children, even without any support services which would be ideal.

The point to be made is that it is CHEAPER to find alternatives to incarceration. The reduced cost is also to be measured in the improved life outcomes of children.

The Enhanced Ranch Model that was explained at JFJ's forum shows that it is possible to change a system with the expenditure of little or no extra money. These surely are results we would want to see for the children of Jamaica, including those who are in conflict with the law or are deemed "uncontrollable" or otherwise in need of care and protection.

What is needed is a MASSIVE shift in how we think about and treat those of our children who show that they need extra help and support from the society. It will be to our collective detriment if we fail to demand that our Government, both policymakers and public officers, ignore cheaper, more effective and more compassionate models, whether from other countries or based on the experience and know-how of Jamaican professionals, and instead persist with the current punitive, costly and ineffective model.

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