How Belize Can Reduce Crime by Investing More in At-Risk-Youth

By Jennifer Peirce

In recent years, the “mano dura” strategy of widespread imprisonment has been popular among many political leaders. Now, in the face of evidence that it has not reduced violence levels, some governments are taking a different tack.

This is the case in Belize, a small country of only about 350,000 residents and an unusual vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change. So, the choice to invest in crime prevention and or alternatives to incarceration can be tough. But the reality is that shifting resources away from punitive approaches and into community-based treatment and services is likely to be more effective and less costly.

A gap analysis report, released in May by the IDB, reviews existing initiatives in citizen security and recommends potential actions for future programs. Its discussion builds on the experiences of Belize’s Community Action for Public Safety (CAPS) program, funded by the IDB. This four-year program, completed last year, is typical of the hands-on support that the IDB has provided to Belize for a series of development challenges during the country’s 25 years of membership in the Bank.

The report makes two broad recommendations: less repressive policing and more services for “at-risk” youth in general, and more targeted interventions for gang-involved youth and adults. This requires a deeper understanding of the risk factors that youth and families are facing and who is or not involved in violence – beyond the generic “ni ni” definition of at-risk (neither in school nor employed).

International evidence shows that any contact with the criminal justice system – police, courts, or prisons – makes youth more likely to be involved in future criminal activity. In Belize, many youth who are in detention facilities do not need to be there for public safety or judicial reasons.

How then, can the Government of Belize turn this reality around?

First, tackle excessively punitive legislation. In Belize, juveniles (under 18) may face life sentences without parole. Juveniles may also be charged with ‘uncontrollable behavior,’ which refers to rebellious behavior but does not involve criminal acts. In 2015, 44% of juveniles entering the justice system were facing this charge. Eliminating this category in the law would cut admissions into the system.

Second, universal access to legal aid would also reduce pretrial detention and harsh sentences, especially for juveniles. Prosecutors and judges should apply their existing discretionary power to divert youth away from charges or detention, to community-based programs instead. Though officials have this option on paper, in practice they need more awareness of alternatives, as well as more programs to supervise the youth. New facilities, staff, and trauma-sensitive mental health services for these youth – especially girls and youth in the state foster care system – could move them out of detention and help address their needs.

Of course, some young people are involved in serious crime, and may need more robust interventions than merely avoiding contact with law enforcement or detention centers/prisons. Gang violence reduction programs need not involve most youth in high-crime areas – but they must actually find the “hardest to reach” youth who are active in gang violence.

In Belize City, the Conscious Youth Development Program, CYDP, does reach them, and it has the trust of both gang members and of the police. The CYDP offers confidential mediation and de-escalation of conflicts among gang affiliates – similar to Cure Violence in the US. But, the CYDP needs more space, staff, and resources. Moreover, gang dynamics are shifting rapidly in Belize, with more incursions from Central American gangs. In-depth assessments of these patterns, including gender and migration factors, would help to tailor interventions.

More broadly, a narrow focus on “just youth” is shortsighted. Many “risk factors” – such as childhood exposure to violence and low literacy – exist in the family unit, not just individuals. Many services, such as conditional cash transfers and parenting skills classes, could be better integrated with violence prevention services for youth. Some of these youth and families face numerous, severe challenges requiring more robust mental health and trauma treatment, not just one-off programs.

One proposal for further integration is a single “one stop shop” for accessing family and individual services in Southside Belize City, with case managers who can work across sectors and services. This would complement successful programs established by CAPS: Positive Youth Development curriculum in schools, the Gateway Centre for youth not in school or after school, and counseling for youth in conflict with the law.

Finally, two crosscutting elements are crucial: good data and gender-based analysis. Belize has built a data platform for social services – FamCare – that is a reference for the region. This helps to generate indicators of change that are more meaningful than just crime rates or recidivism rates. Developing more gender-disaggregated data is a key next step.

A gender analysis across citizen security policies goes beyond data, though. Designing policy interventions with a gender lens – such as diversion, mental health treatment, and foster care, as well as questions of “violent masculinity” – helps them better respond to the different needs of boys and girls.

Belize’s significant investments in violence prevention and reintegration of youth in conflict with the law, through CAPS and other programs, are showing positive results. This new report underlines that at this crossroads, with the support of international cooperation and with key legislative and policy shifts, Belize has the opportunity to consolidate and expand its progress.

The Spanish version of this blog can be found here.

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