Gulu Battles Child offenders

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GULU - If you're below 18, the law in Uganda considers you a child and you are likely to receive lenience in case of an offence. If above 18, you are more likely to face the full force of the law. Now, whether out of ignorance or malice, many children particularly arrested from districts outside Gulu, are brought to the Gulu main prison with an age tag of above 18 for lack of holding facilities for children.  The Justice for Children (J4C) review meeting held today in Gulu at the Bomah Hotel was informed that some of these are cases of repeat offenders whom their communities of origin are fed up of. In addition, age verification procedures are generally said to be ill conducted and therefore, unable to properly inform fair delivery of justice.

J4C recently conducted an age verification exercise for 53 suspected juveniles detained in the adult prison. 23 of them were found to be juveniles. On the extreme, one child (17), who had been processed through the system as an adult, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment a case of aggravated defilement before the age verification exercise. According to the Children Act, the maximum sentence for a child offender on a capital offense is 3 years.
Some cases defeat common sense according to His Worship Paul Owino for example, if a 16-year old defiles 2-3 year old, such a child released back to the community is likely to be lynched. There's need to make consideration for the victims, who continue hurting long after the offenders' cases have been disposed of.

During the meeting, mention was made of the dire situation of the remand home. "We managed to visit remand homes severally but what I realized is that the rooms are stinking, children have no uniforms, and there's little or no food", said His Worship Owino. He observed the outcry from some circles regarding sending petty offenders to the National Rehabilitation Centre Kampilingisa due to lack of alternative facilities upon diversion,  as many end up becoming hard core criminals while there.

Currently, 64 juveniles are detained in the remand home, 10 of whom are petty offenders. According to Joseph Kilama the Probation and Social Welfare officer, aggravated defilement accounts for 90% of the cases registered. Unfortunately some of these cases are frustrated by parents who negotiate cases out of court, taking advantage of the loophole in the law where early marriages are not criminalized. Susan Okalany, a Senior Prosecutor with the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, emphasized the need to amend the law to provide for criminalization of early marriages.

All is not lost. Gulu courts have set up a special day to hear children's cases, increased visits to remand homes have been planned, bail is offered to breastfeeding mothers, no child cases are heard without the court being fully constituted, with a child's social inquiry report on file, among others. Represented at the meeting were;  the Chief Magistrate, UNICEF, Gulu Regional Remand Home, police, prisons, advocates, Legal Aid Project, DPP, the Uganda Human Rights Commission and Fit person's.


By Deo Tumusiime

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