A probation officer at a One-stop Child Justice Centre
The one-stop justice centre is an innovation in child justice in South Africa which prevents young people being pushed from service to service — and thereby easily getting lost in the system. Riaan du Plessis talks about the probation officer's role.
At the Mangaung Child Justice Centre all personnel, and especially the probation officer (and assistant probation officers), are rendering a variety of services to young people in conflict with the law (up to age 17 years). All children arrested in the Bloemfontein area are taken to the One-stop Child Justice Centre, where an assistant probation officer is on stand-by 24 hours a day. He or she will immediately screen the child in order to determine if it is in the interest of the offender, community or victim to keep the child in the "on-site" holding facilities for the night (or weekend) until the child appears in court (on the premises) on the first working day thereafter. This process includes an interview with the offender and his/her guardians. The assistant probation officer also needs to ensure that the offender’s guardians have been informed about his or her arrest. In less serious cases or where there is no immediate threat to the victim or the community, offenders will be released into the care of their guardians. The present Criminal Procedure Act prescribes that only the investigating officer of SAPS can release an offender, so the assistant probation officer makes a recommendation and engages in discussions with the investigating officer to release such children.
Before the first appearance in court, the assistant probation officer will also conduct a full assessment to determine whether the child is a first offender, known to the Department of Social Development or Nicro (as a result of previous treatment, behaviour problems, etc). The officer will also examine the seriousness of the crime, ascertain the age of the child and establish whether the child takes responsibility for his or her actions. The assistant probation officer then makes a recommendation on whether or not there should be diversion and after a discussion with the prosecutor the case is either diverted or the child will be prosecuted. As the probation officer is available in the Centre, he will have knowledge of the cases in court as well as the recommendations made by the assistant probation officer. An average of 50% of all cases appearing in the youth court at the Centre are diverted for developmental interventions. From January to September 2002, 564 children were assessed at the centre and 231 of these were diverted to diversion programmes at the Department and Nicro.
The Department of Social Development renders developmental services to offenders up to 14 years, while the Nicro social worker works with children between the ages of 15 and 17 years. A developmental strength-based assessment will be compiled on each referral and the offender and his/her guardians will be involved in individual developmental interventions. Formal programmes like the Take a Lead in Life programme and the From Scars to Stars programme are some of the programmes where offenders will be involved in group interventions in order to work developmentally with them. Programmes are presented by both the probation officer and the assistant probation officers.
After the six-week period, the probation officer or the Nicro social worker will report back to the prosecutor on the child’s co-operation and insight development as well as the possibility of withdrawing the case or not. If it is withdrawn, further service provision will proceed in line with the individual developmental plan.
In some cases the prosecutor will request a more in-depth investigation into the contributing elements in the child’s behaviour, as well as into the effect of the offence on the victim and also what resources exist within the accused’s family to assist reform. This would normally be the case in cases of a sexual nature (where the offender and the victim might be very young). In these instances a desirability of prosecution report will be compiled and presented to court. If these cases are withdrawn, these children will also form part of the diversion caseload of the probation officer. Victims in these kinds of cases will usually be referred to a social worker for further interventions.
Matters proceeding to court
If, after assessment, a decision was made to prosecute and to detain a child in custody in Grootvlei Prison’s juvenile section, the assistant probation officer must report the reason for this detention to the probation officer.
After conviction, the principle of the "least restrictive and most empowering sentence options" is followed when a recommendation on a sentence is made to the court at the Centre, as well as for matters appearing in the regional court. At the One-stop Centre, a very structured system presently exists to ensure effective service rendering to these sentenced offenders. These offenders have to do a specific number of hours of community service at certain police stations, and other community-based, non-profit organisations. They also have to report to an assistant probation officer, who will follow an individual care plan, compiled in collaboration with the offender, parents, school and the probation officer. They will also be involved in the Responsible Living Programme, which aims to develop them into responsible adults. In order to assist the probation officer and the assistant probation officer in monitoring these sentenced children, volunteers are recruited and trained to work with and support these young people in their own communities.
In 1999 the personnel of the One-stop Centre realised that certain preventive interventions needed to be initiated in order to reduce the number of children and young people who are at risk of coming into conflict with the law. Individual and group intervention services are available to children and youths with behaviour probems. In many ways these services link up with services rendered to children and these children are also involved in the "behaviour management" programme. Presently the Centre’s personnel are engaged with 135 young children and youths in order to prevent them from offending at all.
This feature: Du Plessis, R. (2002) The role of the probation officer at a one-stop justice centre. Article 40, Vol.4 No.4