Treating juveniles the ‘right way’ could minimise risk of them embarking on a life of crime

16 Feb 2022 03:23pm
Photo for illustration purpose only - Source: 123rf
Photo for illustration purpose only - Source: 123rf

SHAH ALAM - When a youthful offender is being hauled to court, the judge must keep in mind the fact that a child is standing before them and the child must be handled accordingly.

This, Voice of Children chairperson Sharmila Sekaran said was because the best interests of a child must be given paramount consideration not only by the courts, but also by the authorities.

She said she was of the opinion that the courts and authorities must distinguish the offence from the child (person under the age of 18) and that the wrongdoing should not be allowed to define the child.

It is the duty and responsibility of the court and relevant authorities to ensure the child is protected within the justice system, she said.

She said orders made against a child should be in their best interest, noting that dealing with children was different from dealing with adults who were brought to the face of justice.

In light of the case of a 15-year old girl who was believed to have been raped and denied bail by the court for a charge of killing her newborn baby, Sharmila said this should not be treated purely as a murder case.

“The facts of the case are that a child got pregnant, gave birth, and ended up killing her baby, this is infanticide.

“Regardless of how this girl became pregnant, the fact is that any 15-year old is not emotionally, psychologically and physiologically old enough to be pregnant. This is why child marriages and child pregnancies are wrong,” she told Sinar Daily.

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Hence, she said the girl needed to be treated as a victim, as someone in need of care and protection, and not as a murderer.

She said the fact that the girl was allegedly raped, made it all more necessary that she was cared for and protected and not pushed through the ‘cold and heartless’ system with mere implementations of standard operating procedures (SOPs).

People within the justice system have to understand that a child’s brain is still growing, learning and developing, and that was why they cannot be dealt with like an adult, she said.

Sharmila who is a lawyer said dealing with children in the ‘right way’ could minimise the risk of them becoming criminals and repeat offenders.

“In this case, this girl was below 16, so it is statutory rape. But how did this happen to her? Has something gone wrong in her life or at home, for her to end up in this desperate situation?

“She was pregnant and charged with infanticide. We should be focussed on how a young girl ended up in this situation and what can we do to ensure that we learn from it so that no other child ends up like this.

“What can we do to help her so that she comes out on the positive side of this,” she said.

She also suggested several measures that could be taken by the government and authorities to tackle the issue.

This, included to have people who were trained to handle, care for and protect children from the moment they were in conflict with the law, placed in the police force, Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), and the judiciary, among others.

She also said the Social Welfare Department (JKM) which was grossly understaffed needed to be better staffed and embolden to carry out their duties and responsibilities as child protectors.

“The federal police's D11 division generally exists to protect women and child victims but not child perpetrators.

"This shows a gross lack of awareness and understanding that child perpetrators are also victims, and are victimised through the justice system,” she added.

She said authorities need to be educated and have knowledge about the Child Act 2001 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the provisions of which were applicable in cases involving children in conflict with the law.

Most importantly, she said was political will, as the country needed more ministers who were willing to understand the issue and make a difference.

“There must be a champion for children within the government as well as a transformation of mindset.

“We need to move away from the penal mindset to a restorative and rehabilitative mindset,” she added.

Sharmila said there are a number of people and groups working in the children rights space and becoming a great advocate for children, including Parliamentary Select Committee on Women and Children Affairs and Social Development (PSCC) chairman Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh and Batu Kawan MP Kasthuriraani Patto.