Editorial: Is the focus on the real problem?
We have told this story before. Three decades ago, when Ed Bartlett was the portfolio minister, and Jamaicans were exercised over the seemingly rising incidence of incest and the sexual abuse of girls, the Seaga administration raised the age of consent from 14 to 16.
That may have been good policy. For a person at 14 remains a child and that age is perhaps too young for a girl to have the right to decide on sexual encounters and for an older male to be free of legal responsibility for the manipulation of her emotional underdevelopment and/or awareness. Sixteen may even be too young.
But the Bartlett solution didn't solve the problem. It got worse. Or, so it seemed. At least, there were more incidents to offend the law, and the evidence, anecdotally at least, suggests that the offenders were not being brought before the law - or not at the rate at which such offences were being whispered about in communities.
We wonder whether Jamaica is at risk of entering a new phase of the Bartlett phenomenon regarding the abuse of children, particularly girls. Jamaica is again exercised over the issue of child abuse, and rightly so. Close to 30
children have been murdered so far this
year, including girls who appeared to have been sexually assaulted, or otherwise abused. In two separate cases, 14-year-olds were pregnant.
So, last week, the de facto information minister, Sandrea Falconer, disclosed that the Cabinet had agreed to new offences and stiffer penalties under the Child Care and Protection Act. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller herself weighed in on the matter, promising "harsher penalties for persons who murder, rape, or commit other serious violent offences against children".
This newspaper is all for harsh penalties for child molesters and abusers. But for that to happen, the offenders first have to be caught, charged, brought before the courts, tried and convicted.
The larger point here is that Jamaica has quite a good Child Care and Protection Act, which places significant responsibilities on persons who care for children and relatively tough penalties on breaches of these obligations, and on those who cause their charges to be abused.
responsibility to report abuse
For instance, under Section 6(2) of the act, persons with information that cause them to suspect that a child is being, or is in danger of being, ill-treated, including sexually or mentally, have a responsibility to report that suspicion to the Office of the Children's Registry, failure of which could make them liable, at conviction by a magistrate, to a jail term of three months, a fine of $500,000, or both. Under Section 9, a parent or guardian who ill-treats a child can be imprisoned for up to five years at conviction in a circuit court. For trafficking in children, the jail time is up to 10 years.
The real problem, we suspect, is not the law or the penalties thereunder. Rather, like with most other crimes in Jamaica, perpetrators are often not apprehended, and so believe that they can act with impunity. And when they are caught, the process of justice is slow.
In that regard, perhaps the worthy proposal is the one to fast-track child-abuse cases through the courts, which the Government says it is discussing with Chief Justice Zaila McCalla. However, we hope that doesn't lead to a worse backlog of other cases in a slow-poke justice system.