Juveniles in Uganda who commit minor crimes no longer have to face the formal justice system. Instead they will be referred to local, religious and traditional leaders, as a way to be reintegrated back into the community.
By Joseph Elunya, Kampala
The Ugandan government has recently introduced an alternative justice system to protect juvenile offenders from facing justice in the formal courts of law. The development is part of legal reforms being spearheaded by the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
“When a juvenile offender is brought to the police for a minor offense, such as theft, the child offender will be immediately referred to local religious and traditional chiefs for counseling, and later reintegrated back into the community,” says Rhona Babweteera, the justice for children coordinator at the Ministry of Justice.
The formal justice system, Babweteera explains, keeps the offenders away from society and makes them miss out on an education. “Uganda does not have good rehabilitation centers for juvenile offenders. As a result, a child who has only stolen an egg is put in a cell together with hardcore criminals such as convicted murderers. It’s a bad influence.” According to Babweteera, the alternative courts will handle the majority of cases, except for capital offences like defilement and murder.
Child Restoration Outreach
“We have successfully reintegrated back into the community over one hundred juvenile offenders who were referred to us by the police during the month of February alone,” says Stella Makoha of Child Restoration Outreach (CRO), a Christian organization that is implementing the alternative justice system in Mbale, eastern Uganda.
CRO also tries to trace the young offenders’ parents in order to reconcile the two parties. “Sometimes we face stiff resistance from the parents,” says Makoha. “One time a parent chased us away, saying he preferred us to bring back home a corpse instead of a thief.”
What’s more, according to Makoha most parents don’t want to be reconciled with their children who have been accused of theft. In such cases the organization will look for other relatives who can intervene and mediate between the child offender and his or her parents.
Of course, parents cannot always be traced. Many of the children are homeless and don’t always reveal their true identities when they are arrested. “The biggest problem that forces children onto the streets and get involved in crime is widespread poverty in both the rural and urban areas of Uganda,” says Makoha.