Article 40 © copyright to the Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape

Diversion in Brits: a personal observation

Personal observations by Beatrix Breitenbach, prosecutor, Magistrate's Court, Brits

The North West Province Department of Social Services, Arts, Culture and Sport organised training on child justice and also invited officials from the Department of Justice. Although I was invited to attend, I was anxious. What would the new child justice developments hold? Would they really benefit child justice?

The programme started with the fascinating background history of the child justice system. During the course of the training, slowly but surely my concerns were addressed. I could hardly believe the progress that was made in this area of justice.

Finally, we the people who work with these special offenders saw a new system coming together for them and yes, they are special. They are children and they have their whole lives ahead of them. If they are diverted in the right direction now, a criminal record won't devastate their lives forever.

I was greatly inspired by one of the trainers who had started a musical group as a diversion option. During the most enjoyable group session we discussed different diversion options. My thoughts started to race. What could I do to support the youth in Brits instead of destroying their future with a criminal record?

Once back at the office, I started to put together the skills that I had acquired from the seminar. I went through the offences that are committed in my area and realised that they were mostly charges of theft and housebreaking. I knew, from community observations, that these crimes were mainly committed because of poverty and lack of proper care at home. These child offenders needed to provide for themselves but firstly they would need to be taught some skills.

Resources are a major problem, so I had to examine what was available for me to offer them. I regard myself as being artistic and if I could teach them some art skills, they could create items to sell and not only receive money to provide for themselves and their families, but they could also gain confidence and respect for themelves again.

During Nicro's Yes Programme, I launched the first art classes. I had nine boys attending the first lesson. We drew a colour wheel and I taught them the basics of mixing different colours. We then started drawing some wild animals. I knew that animals are a major curio item, especially for international tourists who visit scenic attractions at the little stalls of the Damooryn crossing near the Hartebeespoortdam.

A, one of the children, had a special talent for art. He was in the diversion programme because of a housebreaking case. After successfully completing the programme, we withdrew the charges against him. I wrote a letter to his mother, informing her of his talent. Yet, two weeks later he reappeared for the same crime. I was heartbroken. He is a young man with so much talent and opportunities but I realised that in some cases, I was dealing with a set pattern of behaviour that is difficult to avert. To my great pleasure, this was the only re-offender.

This programme faces many difficulties. Firstly we have a problem with financing the project. We are solely dependant upon the community for help. Secondly, over and above my normal duties as prosecutor, I have to find the time to acquire the materials needed as well as conduct the art classes. Yet, it makes it all worthwhile to see the difference that it makes in the lives of these youngsters.

My vision for this programme is a well-equipped classroom where the art classes can be conducted, with me as full time teacher. I also believe that a good follow-up system is needed to keep on inspiring these young people.

Although the need is great I know that every journey is started by taking the first step.