BULWAYO, ZIMBABWE – Two years ago, Sibusiso Dube had an altercation that could have radically changed the course of his life.
He was 18 at the time, and he and a friend began arguing over the outcome of a bet. They decided to settle the matter with their fists.
“In my neighborhood, settling scores by engaging in street fights was just a way to grow up among teenagers,” says Dube. “In half the time, they weren’t serious fighting, and people often made peace afterward.”
Dube won the fight and believed it would be the end of the matter. But his friend, Mandla Nkomo, reported the incident to his brother, who called the police. Later that day, officers arrived at Dube’s home and arrested him for assault. He spent the night in jail, facing the prospect of a trial and possibly a prison sentence. A criminal record would exclude him from state employment and make it extremely difficult to get a job in the private sector.
“I was dazed and confused,” says Dube. “Why was I arrested for something that always happened in the neighborhood?”
But the next morning, Dube was released into his mother’s custody and given a respite: a social worker informed him that his case would not go to court after all. Instead, he had to participate in a new pre-trial diversion program designed for young people like him.
Instead of serving his sentence in prison, he would be offered counseling and professional training, and he would have to attend mediation sessions with Nkomo and offer the family some form of reparation. Had he successfully completed the program, he would not have had the stigma of a criminal record.
The pre-trial diversion program may soon benefit more young people like Dube. The program, which started in 2016 as a pilot project between the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, is currently underway in four cities. The government plans to expand it nationwide.
The program is designed for young adults under the age of 21 who have committed less serious crimes, such as theft, assault and illegal entry, which normally lead to prison sentences of up to 12 months.
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The government launched the program after realizing that incarceration was not an effective path to rehabilitating juvenile offenders, says Ziyambi Ziyambi, Minister of Justice, Legal Affairs and Parliament. The government found that imprisoning young people with hardened criminals often led to young people becoming hardened criminals themselves.
Detainees in the Zimbabwe prison system have long suffered human rights abuses. Minors, in particular, suffered from a lack of legal representation. But in recent years, the country has worked to improve conditions inside prisons and put more emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The preliminary diversion program is part of this effort. Since it started, some 4,000 young people have completed it.
“The program has achieved its objectives, because it aims to ensure that minors are not exposed to hardened criminals for minor offenses,” says Ziyambi.
It now operates in four cities: Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru and Kadoma. The government could begin expanding the program by the end of the year. Such programs are quite rare in the region, although South Africa has one with similar goals.
“We plan to ensure that the program is extended to all districts of the country so that all children have access to the program and that juvenile justice is uniform across the country,” says Ziyambi.
“The program has achieved its objectives, because it aims to ensure that minors are not exposed to hardcore criminals for minor offenses.” minister of justice, legal and parliamentary affairs
Diverting children from the formal criminal justice system also helps reduce pressure on the country’s overcrowded prisons, Ziyambi adds. The capacity of the country’s prison system is 17,000. More than 20,000 prisoners were jailed in March.
Social reintegration is also a key objective of the program.
“The pre-trial diversion option is in no way intended to make offenders less accountable or accountable for their actions, but rather to provide offenders with the opportunity to rethink their lives,” says Gerald Matiba, executive director of the Christian Legal Society of Zimbabwe, which offers free legal advice, counseling and psychosocial support to children involved in the diversion program.
Once a young adult has a criminal record, society tends to avoid and stigmatize him, says Matiba. By forcing minors to take responsibility for their own actions – while also addressing other social, family or community issues that may be contributing to their behavior – the diversion program makes it easier for young people to be readmitted to their communities and avoid further rushes into the law. .
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Young people who exhibit delinquent or criminal behavior have often experienced peer pressure, lack of parental guidance or supervision, abuse, neglect or abuse of alcohol and substances, Matiba says. Addressing these issues can take time and there is no specific timeline for completing the diversion program. Some criminals complete the program in three to six weeks, Matiba says, while others can stay on the program for months.
Dube says that after following the program, he realized what he did was wrong and had to apologize to his friend and his friend’s family. He also had to garden at his friend’s house for about a month to show remorse and repentance for his deed.
Looking back, Nkomo says he had no intention of arresting his friend, but is pleased that the diversion program allows young people to prevent stupid decisions in their youth from ruining the rest of their lives.
Dube was able to receive professional training and now works as a mechanic. He says that if he was incarcerated, his family and community would not have supported him as they did after completing the diversion program.
“Once you have a criminal record, family members and society stigmatize you,” says Dube. “So I think the fact that I don’t have a criminal record made it easier for me to reintegrate into society.”
[ https://globalpressjournal.com/africa/zimbabwe/set-free-program-helps-youth-avoid-jail-lasting-stigma/ https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214746/a-quiet-place-part-2-bigs-16.pdf