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Advocacy groups have welcomed the tabling of the Child Justice Bill in parliament as a recognition of the need for a separate system for child offenders.
The bill raises the minimum age of criminal capacity from seven to 10 years old and allows magistrates to employ community-based programmes to reform child offenders.
"South Africa has finally established a child justice system that will potentially reduce crime; promote the accountability of children with a view to breaking the cycle of violence, treat children in a manner appropriate to their ages while holding them accountable for their actions; balance the needs of the child, the victim and society; and create a safer society for all," said the Child Justice Alliance.
The bill divides criminal offences into "three schedules" with punishment meted out in relation to the age of the child and the seriousness of the offence.
Schedule one covers less serious crimes such as common assault, malicious damage to property, petty theft, and possession of drugs in small quantities.
Schedule two includes crimes such as public violence, culpable homicide, robbery with aggravating circumstances, housebreaking and forgery, while schedule three includes murder, rape, possession of firearms and ammunition, extortion and corruption.
All children can be considered for a diversion programme instead of being tried in court, but only if they admit to committing a crime, said director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, Professor Ann Skelton.
But this becomes difficult when more serious crimes have been committed or the state proves that the offender poses a threat to public safety, she said.
The aim of the bill was not about punishment but about promoting public safety and developing children who will grow up to be law-abiding citizens.