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EDITORIAL: Need to rehabilitate youth

BEA DOTTIN, [email protected]

EDITORIAL: Need to rehabilitate youth

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The idea that this country should look at new ways of treating some drug offenders and that a court should be set up to try to rehabilitate rather than punish is an attempt to save some of those young persons who may have fallen foul of the law from the most severe consequences of their actions.
The notion of reform for some law-breaking youngsters rather than traditional punishment is embedded in the Penal Reform Act of 1994 which allows the offender to do community service while keeping a clean record sheet. It has given many a first offender a second chance.
A conviction for the possession of drugs can be a serious blight on one’s career, and since many younger persons may allow their unwisdom to express itself in ways they would not allow if they were more mature, the reasoning is that rehabilitation is better for some individuals than addiction or incarceration; and that the society as a whole is better off when it succeeds.
Since many youngsters who breach the law are at an age when they may be most productive to themselves and to the society, many useful years may be saved and many useful opportunities and even some stellar careers might eventuate if that first experiment, when caught by the long arm of the law, is not visited with the full coercive power of the criminal law.
Reports are recounted in the international media of at least two young experimenters who went on to enjoy important political careers; but their fates might have been different had they been caught and dealt with by a law that did not distinguish between the follies of youth and the greed-driven exploitation of others by the criminally minded.
It seems that this country is not alone in seeking alternatives to “locking up” those who have broken the law and an experiment in the American state of Oklahoma is very encouraging.
Recently four women who completed an intense rehabilitation programme were handed documents from the Oklahoma County district attorney dropping the criminal charges which had been brought against them, after they had completed a year-long programme of therapy.
Normally these charges would have landed them in the state prison, but the views expressed by the state director of prisons show a remarkably forward-looking approach.
“Programmes like this are really critical in breaking the cycle of incarceration since . . . 70 per cent of the next generation of inmates are going to be the children of those now in prison,” he said.
The state director’s emphasis there was on breaking the cycle of incarceration in families by focusing on rehabilitating young mothers, as a sensible alternative to prison overcrowding and building more prisons.
But in Oklahoma and in this country we are both on the same page. Here, our current concern is to save youngsters from themselves and from prison, and new thinking may well be necessary to bring this problem under control. No one proposal by itself may be the solution, but the views of Justice Randall Worrell, and the proposal for the Drug Court, are important ingredients in the rational debate which we hope will follow.
We also support the wide-ranging views of Mrs Faith Marshall Harris as she examines the laws as they relate to young people, and we support sensible and rational calls for change where young people, particularly, can be saved from destroying their lives.
Since they are not policy-makers, it is not usual for our judicial figures to speak publicly on these issues. However, judges, magistrates and state directors of prisons are first-hand witnesses to the failure of current practices when they see appearing before them time and again, (young) people who, with rehabilitation, may stand a chance of productive and useful lives. We must try new approaches.