Restorative Juvenile Justice and a Region’s Important Choices

November 29, 2010

DSC00051 Orietta Zumbado and Victor Herrero discuss juvenile justice.

The punitive approach to justice long applied to juvenile offenders in many Central American countries calls for zero tolerance. Simply put, this approach is not working. According to police reports and national census data, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have among the highest murder rates in the region. In 2009, El Salvador registered 75.99 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In Honduras, the number of homicides registered at 68.9 per 100,000, while in Guatemala the rate registered is 48.3 per 100,000. Homicide rates not only continue to rise, but those convicted often further entrench themselves in illegal activities while in the criminal system. In contrast, restorative justice is gaining traction as a viable alternative to hard handed measures. Applied to offenders, restorative justice focuses instead on the harm caused to the victim, their families and society. In this way, restorative justice acknowledges both the victim’s need for reparation and the perpetrator’s need to take responsibility for and understand the damage caused by actively engaging in restitution for the crime. The Creative-implemented Alianza Joven Regional USAID-SICA program is strengthening legal juvenile justice frameworks at the regional level and in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

In light of the vast challenges faced by the juvenile justice systems in these three countries, Orietta Zumbado, a Judge who leads USAID-SICA AJR’s juvenile justice component, recently sat down with international restorative juvenile justice expert, Victor Herrero. The two team members discussed alternative justice measures in Central America. Herrero, who has applied restorative juvenile justice in more than ten countries, is currently working with AJR to strengthen the institutions responsible for oversight and control of alternative sanctions imposed on minors, so that these more efficiently and more effectively impact recidivism indexes and improve the capacity for the social rehabilitation of offenders.

How does one define restorative juvenile justice?

By definition restorative juvenile justice is a new vision of the justice system. It strongly incorporates the rights of the child, responsibility of the minor under due process and the principle of Opportunity, Flexibility and Social Participation.

Restorative justice goes beyond the mere legalities, and calls for an ethical focus in managing the justice system. The crime committed is not considered so much as an affront against the State but rather an affront against the victim and society. The response must be coordinated across institutions mandated to make the criminal juvenile justice process a space of opportunity for the young offender. The restorative justice criminal approach ensures the youth takes responsibility and agrees to make reparations for damage caused. Such an approach to criminal proceedings reflects a pedagogical focus. A diversified response is applied and takes into consideration the severity of the crime committed and the circumstances of the youth implicated in the crime. In general, all Criminal Codes provide for restorative measures, especially as applied to minors and juvenile offenders because incarceration is a response of last resort—an exception.

Why is restorative juvenile justice needed in Central America at this particular time?

In the face of violence, the State often responds by legislating repressive measures. This hardening of laws neglects the causes that provoke violence and crime. If we compare this to a health intervention, it would be as if we were trying to resolve all health problems by admitting patients with any type of illness or stage of illness into intensive care. Everyone knows that the system would collapse immediately and would be inefficient. A large portion of Central American youth is on the margin of society. They are looked upon as enemies instead of the future of our societies. This state of affairs cannot continue.

Can restorative juvenile justice help to diminish violence?

The restorative focus on alternative measures helps to diminish violence indices by making youth responsible and allowing the victim of the crime to feel a sense of justice. We should be clear that when a youth reaches the criminal system, it is evidence of a failure of other systems. I think the restorative justice vision is a moral, ethical and social responsibility.
Does restorative justice go beyond judges, police and prosecutors?

In restorative justice, the victims are key. This approach should not be confused with soft justice or with impunity, but rather the opposite. What is sought, in all cases, is that the young offender assumes his or her responsibility. We have to make available support services to victims to minimize the damage suffered as a result of the crime committed against them. When young offenders are brought before the process, they are made to understand their crime and take responsibility for their actions before all parties involved. To help youth to make amends for their crimes, it’s important to structure sound mediation services, and efficient programs. For example, in this region, it would be important to strengthen community services.

What country or countries have ideal or effective models when it comes to adopting restorative juvenile justice practices?

In the Central American context, it’s important to observe good practice. A restorative juvenile justice project implemented by the NGO, Terre des Hommes in Nicaragua is applying a restorative focus on youth in working with the Supreme Court, juvenile affairs offices and law enforcement. Institutions responsible for administering alternative measures have perfected their procedures and coordinated actions with institutions to apply alternative justice measures cited in the country`s Code on Children and Adolescents. An innovative information system allows them to manage cases. The system generates alerts to juvenile justice officers with regard to cases and allows them to access, share and analyze real-time data to make informed and timely decisions. I know of a special youth police unit that employs prevention measures in coordination with criminal juvenile justice institutions. We must capitalize on these positive experiences.


What are our mechanisms for strengthening state institutions?

Above all, from the viewpoint of NGOs or international development, we have to consider the need to accompany States in strengthening their institutions. This is one of the greatest contributions USAID-SICA-AJR can generate in the region. The project supports and strengthens precisely those institutions directly involved in the implementation of alternative measures in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

AJR´s strategy for strengthening rehabilitation systems is noteworthy. One of the greatest problems in the system is at the intersection of coordination, monitoring and control. We are working with juvenile judges applying the sentences and with the offices charged with monitoring and controlling restorative measures. In El Salvador, this is through the National Institute for the Integrated Protection of Children and Adolescents (ISNA). In Guatemala this is through the Secretariat for Social Well-being. In Honduras, we are working through the National Institute for Families and Children (IHNFA), this is a first and important success. The interesting aspect of the Creative led USAID-SICA AJR project is that strengthening these systems translates into very practical and specific alternative measures. The project supports inter-institutional coordination in order to provide youth with increased alternatives and a space of opportunity.

As a collateral result, coordination between the institutions has improved, fostering trust between them. The project’s challenge and also its greatest strength is its regional dimension. Facilitating these countries’ work through common elements will ensure that the treatment of crimes will also have positive impact at the regional level. This without a doubt, will in the medium term mean a very different situation for the youth of Central America.

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