Home Law International Handbook of Juvenile Justice
Principal among these diversionary measures are child panels, police cautions, and restitution through community service:
(a) Child panels
A new system of child panels was introduced under the Children’s Act in 1998. These panels were to be formed at the community level under the authority of the district assembly. The essence of this eight member committees was to ensure that it would mediate between victims and child offenders within the community and also promote reconciliation between victims and child perpetrators of minor offenses. This body was also empowered to administer a verbal caution to a juvenile to the effect that future repetition of the offense would result in proper proceedings within the system. The panel also had the power to make a community guidance order and, to this end, may appoint a person of good standing in the community to supervise the juvenile for 6 months, subject to the consent of the parties. This initiative is well intended and enlightened in its approach to providing extra protection from contamination by invocation of the criminal proceeding machinery for minor infractions. However, nearly two decades on, few firm steps have been taken to actualize the legislative intent: first, it took nearly 4 years to enact regulations to actualize the provisions of the Act; second, the legislative instrument is unavailable to the general public, except by diligent research; third the financial burden of sustaining the system has been placed on the normally impecunious district assemblies. Little wonder that only three such panels were ever reputed to have been set up in three districts, but even those were so short-lived that they did not do any work before their demise. Therefore, the much-lauded new system of child panels remains nonfunctional, and the responsibilities confided to them have not been taken up.
There are many reasons why the system never took off. First were the inherent structural defects legislated into the Act, and that created a bottleneck that proved insurmountable. For instance, although it was provided that there could be as many child panels as possible in a district, to enable communities to deal with their own problems, there could, in reality, not be more than one panel, as only two officials in the district, and based in the district capital, could act in the capacity of chairman and secretary, respectively. This unnecessary structure also ensured that the child panels could not be really community based but had to be based at the district capital if transportation difficulties were not to become a stumbling block to the officials servicing the various panels. In addition, provision of administrative personnel to service the panels has been imposed on the district assembly. The inescapable consequence of officials having to go on circuit to the various communities undermined the main attraction of such a system—its ability to give immediate attention to a problem that has occurred. Allied to the membership was the statutory requirement that it meet once in 3 months. This “quarterly meeting” requirement meant that the system’s usefulness as a quick, community-based mediation mechanism could not function as such, as no one would sit around waiting for 3 months to have a child panel mediate in a matter when the police station, which is a tried and tested avenue for dealing with offenders, is open for business 24 h a day.
Again, designed in operational terms as the means by which the district assembly, as the representative of the state, would assume full responsibility for the children in the district, no special provision was made by the central government to empower local government system financially to make the discharge of the responsibility possible. Consequently, the district assemblies, already overwhelmed by their many other responsibilities, have failed to take ownership of the system and expend the resources needed to operationalize its many aspects. Perhaps the legislature did not envisage that the system would cost money to operate, or else it believed that in a spirit of voluntarism, members of the community would take on such duties gratis. The fact that the legislature believed that the district assemblies would fund this initiative that was not even their own is even surprising, considering the fact that it is common knowledge that district assemblies cannot even pay their own staff salaries and members of the legislature are also members of these district assemblies in which their constituencies are located. Again, to the knowledge of members of the legislature, district assemblies have been unable to provide financial support to school management committees within their districts, introduced as part of educational reforms in the early 1990s, to enable them function properly, yet they put on them the burden to support child panels and to designate and maintain places of safety for juveniles in their localities. Little wonder that no district assembly has implemented the concept of community child panels as a primary diversionary measure since the idea was introduced into the juvenile justice system.
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