Pretoria - The country will have its first ever Child Justice Act by April next year, a law that tries to balance the rights of victims with the reality that juvenile offenders will be adults one day and that they need to be rehabilitated.
The Bill, recently passed by Parliament, is inspired by the Constitution and international treaties and laws concerning children that South Africa either subscribes to or is party to.
Under current legislation, children either get jail sentences or suspended sentences and through this they are exposed to adult criminal suspects and convicts who may be a bad influence or even abusive.
The new Bill therefore hopes to change the system to allow for alternatives to jail when it comes to juvenile offenders in the way of diversion.
One of the main objectives of diversion is to promote the child's re-integration into the community and reduce potential re-offending. The Bill also seeks to balance the best interests of the child and society, with due regard to the victim's rights.
It also allows for children to be detained in facilities appropriate to their age and away from adult criminals.
The department has launched a pilot project to house these children, due to the lack of non-custodial options available as well as the people and resources to manage them.
It has already been piloted at Randburg in Gauteng; Odi in the North-West; Bellville in the Western Cape; East London in the Eastern Cape and Kimberley in the Northern Cape.
The pilot programme is scheduled to take a year, after which it will be rolled out to all magisterial districts across the country.
Here, department officials work with the Department of Correctional Services, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of Offenders (NICRO), schools, the provincial departments of education, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the police, legal aid and local communities to find alternative punishments, especially diversion programmes with social workers and therapists.
Diversion is closely linked to restorative justice. Offenders take responsibility for their crimes and make amends. In doing this, they begin a process of healing. The process has been seen as more favourable for their victims, themselves, their families and the broader community.
The diversion programmes offers young offenders the chance to develop life skills as an alternative to being jailed. In terms of the pilot project, young suspects who commit offences, will be charged and will appear in court.
They will then be investigated by a probation officer who will check with NICRO if they are suitable for a non-custodial programme.
Offenders will not be considered for a diversion programme unless they voluntarily admit to the crime. The offender will be checked on by a probation officer, who will submit progress reports to the court.
NICRO then will continue to track and evaluate progress, in close consultation with the probation officer.
It is hoped that through this process, the department will create a much fairer system and see a dramatic drop in the number of juvenile prisoners, awaiting trial in prison with no access to formal education for minor offences that could have been far better dealt with in a number of ways.