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Youthful offenders – compassion, second chances and reform

Youthful offenders – compassion, second chances and reform

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With the focus in our society on the wave of violent crime, robbery and murder, it is understandable that minor offences sometimes slip under the radar. Such is the concern and even fear generated by the crime wave that we either ignore such issues or overreact to them.

Our attention was drawn recently to a case involving a young man who was arrested for stealing/eating a slice cake at a local supermarket. This generated a great deal of discussion on social media. Prominent among the reactions was that the young offender must have been hungry, and, by extension, the cause and effect relation between hunger, poverty and crime.

But it also raises some important social issues pertaining to young offenders, indeed not just young ones. For instance, one can ask the question whether dishonesty is permissible if one is hungry. Is dishonesty ever permissible? Can persons who take/steal the property of others on the basis of hunger or poverty, be absolved for their misdemeanour?

We can go further and further along this potentially slippery slope without any consensus as to how one should treat such occurrences. Those who take a hard line do so on the basis of the Old Testament warning about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. They argue, with much merit, that whatever the cause, if such offences are not addressed, perpetrators of minor offences can become major offenders if left unchecked.

Zero tolerance then, is seen as the only way to handle such situations, but in turn it virtually opens a Pandora’s Box. For many of us who take such hard lines sometimes cross the lines as well, in circumstances considered harmless. If zero tolerance is to be the across-the-board policy, what of the simple transgressions we all make with the use/misuse of company resources, ranging from the most lowly employee, up the chain to the boss?

For the moment, let us get back to young offenders and our treatment of them. Several times, it has been raised in Court and in the society at large, of the danger in lumping young offenders with hardened criminals in prison. Also, for minor offences, how effective in terms of rehabilitation are fines and placing offenders on bond? Our efforts at rehabilitation are severely compromised by lack of resources devoted to that purpose.

Should we consider other approaches? Some countries have introduced some form of national service, where offenders are introduced to the virtues of hard work and study and thereby equipped with skills which would serve them greatly in earning an honest living and meeting their needs. Would this work here? Would some form of community service be helpful?

These are among the broad social issues, relating to compassion, second chances and reform which must be addressed if we are to avoid the grave error of painting all with the same brush.

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