x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bringing back the short, sharp shock option

A judge's call for a broader range of sentencing options for underage offenders is the right way to turn around young lives heading down the wrong track.

When Judge Omar Karmustaji called for the reintroduction of punitive options that used to be available for dealing with young offenders, he addressed an issue that has vexed communities across the globe: how do you deal with lawbreakers deemed to be still too young to face the full consequences of their actions?

His contention was not that harsh sentencing ought to be the norm, although the short, sharp shock has a useful place in the lexicon of youth offending. Instead the judge’s point was that the range of options available to the judiciary needs to be much broader if he and his colleagues on the bench are to be effective in turning around young lives that are heading down the wrong track.

There is nothing unique to the UAE in this, although one may ponder the effects of delegated parenting to maids and other domestic staff that occurs here. The challenges posed by wayward youths in the UAE are found in urbanised communities around the world.

Judge Karmustaji, a father of five, is right to identify the solution as holistic, involving the family as well the judiciary, and that the time of prevention is usually long before an underaged defendant has appeared in court. Engaged parental mentoring from a young age is far better than any cure able to be imposed from the bench.

But in any society, some parents’ skills will be found wanting or they find themselves unable to steer their children away from the bad influences they may encounter as they begin to establish their independence as young adults.

The judge recounts two extreme reactions by parents that are detrimental to the prospects of rehabilitation: either disowning a child who has offended or defending the child for what is clearly indefensible behaviour. Similarly, schools that expel children who offend should instead be engaging with them to help steer them on the right course.

The experience of jurisdictions overseas support’s Judge Karmustaji’s view that there is no one-size-fits-all policy for addressing underage crime. Transforming young offenders back into productive members of society requires a full range of options – and wisdom on the bench to apply them.