Home Law International Handbook of Juvenile Justice
Henrietta Joy Abena Nyarko Mensa-Bonsu
THE LEGAL STATUS OF JUVENILES
The justice system for minors who come into conflict with the criminal law has seen tremendous change in normative terms over the last decade and a half. The normative changes that have occurred both locally and internationally over the last two decades have provided the impetus to redesign the system of protection and justice for minors in Ghana. In 1990, Ghana (as the first country to do so) signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and also participated in the making of the Organization of African Unity Charter on the Rights and Duties of the African Child. Both of these instruments contain provisions on juvenile justice that required specific kinds of action by state-parties to achieve compliance. Next, and more important still, came the adoption of a liberal democratic national constitution in January 1993, which meant that standards of decent treatment within the criminal justice system set down under the fair trial provisions in Article 19 of the Constitution of Ghana 1992 had to be taken account of in the system.
The normative changes have translated into substantial shifts in philosophy affecting the treatment of children under the laws of Ghana. Legislation on children in general changed entirely, beginning with the amendment of provisions in the Criminal Code 1960 (Act 29) (now Criminal Offences Act, 1960) and continuing with the enactment of the Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560) and the Juvenile Justice Act, 2003 (Act 653), the law of the child. These two pieces of legislation achieved the separation of the regime for children whose circumstances put them in physical and moral danger, thereby coming to the attention of the law, from children in need of care to those engaging in conduct that would otherwise have been criminal. The new legislation also removed the system of juvenile justice from the statute governing criminal procedure, which it had previously been a part of, thereby affirming the difference in treatment of children in conflict with the law, from that of adult lawbreakers.
The downside to all these changes and new approaches is that the heavy financial outlay that all welfare-based systems require for efficiency is making the stated commitments to improve the system lag behind the reality of improvements in the field, on account of Ghana’s financial constraints. The gap between stated intentions and reality, notwithstanding the new system, marks an improvement upon the old one, and with time the new mindset has gradually permeated the operations and will continue to shape the future of the sector and its institutions.
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