Teenagers can do the most stupid things, and sometimes those stupid things are also crimes. So they get arrested, go to court and sometimes go to jail, at least if they are an older teen.

And for the rest of their lives, hopefully long lives, they have to put in that conviction on every form that asks: “Have you any previous convictions?” Most potential employers then twitch and look harder at the second person on the shortlist.

The system is unduly harsh. A shoplifter is branded a thief for life; an underage boy experimenting with beer and getting a bit wild is branded a violent man for decades. Even a couple of lads taking a car for a joyride without permission can have a hideous criminal record, and a teen sneaking a whiff of marijuana can be labelled as a drug addict.

Time was when a lot of juvenile crime was sorted out by headmasters. In the smaller communities of yesteryear this was usually a reasonable second-best; at least something was done to stop the teenager going forward in a life of crime, there was some punishment for a crime and there was no record.

There are a fair number of very respectable middle-aged men and women in Zimbabwe who went through a most unpleasant interview with their head while at school and changed direction as a result. The courts have never heard of them, unless of course they are a lawyer.

But that was not always done, and in the larger cities of these days it might not be an option. But the idea of appropriate punishment, appropriate counselling, a strong disincentive to repeat the act and no permanent criminal record is worth pursuing.

This is now finally being done with the introduction of a new system of criminal justice for juveniles announced by President Mugabe when he opened Parliament.

He stressed that only less serious crime would be considered. We hope that there is some leeway on this. Obviously violent crimes like murder, robbery and rape need to be excluded, but in other cases consideration needs to be taken of the circumstances. What could be serious in some cases need not be in others.

The actual system will be less formal. There will be an assessment of the child, there will be counselling and there will be, when needed, some punishment, but if we understand the idea correctly this will largely be community service. We gather that if the offender then goes straight, then at some point the criminal record is wiped clean.

To a degree this is a single chance. The Secretary for Justice and Legal Affairs Mr David Mangota said that second offenders could also benefit, but presumably that will depend on circumstances.

One foolish act can be dealt with leniency; two might need careful thought.

The main point of the system must be to bring the teenager up short, make it clear that they cannot continue on that path and then help them choose a life road that is law abiding at the very least.

Quite a lot will depend on the staff assigned to this scheme. No one who has brought up a teenager will ever underestimate the difficulty of getting one to change the ways of their mind. Some will pretend to be attentive, trying to fool the system. Staff will be needed who can see through that.

A high-powered committee, headed by Justice Paddington Garwe of the Supreme Court, is overseeing the scheme. He is one of the most experienced judges in Zimbabwe. So long as the rest of his team are of equal calibre we are confident they can fine-tune the system as it develops to achieve its goals.

Administering a criminal justice system can be tricky. Society needs to be protected from criminals, but at the same time those who commit crimes need to be reformed so that they stop doing that.

The present system does not work as well as it should in that respect. We punish, but find it hard with our high unemployment and lack of resources to restore.

Anyone who has sat in a courtroom when a judge is dealing with those who have chosen a life of crime and have spent years going in and out of jail will understand the need to stop that progress at the first crime.

During his time on the High Court Justice Garwe did more than his fair share of dealing with these professional criminals sent to him for sentencing by magistrates who felt they lacked jurisdiction, and he had to make some tricky decisions on how to deal with juveniles.

Most of those who go in and out of jail for most of their lives started young. So it is worthwhile to see if there is a better way forward. The outline made public seems to balance the needs of society and the need to restore the young offender to that society. We hope it works.

Certainly it is worth trying.

(Source)