Columns

Does a convict ever repay his debt to society?

BY HOWARD HAMILTON

Wednesday, May 07, 2014    

Print this page Email A Friend!


Some time ago, a former commissioner of corrections informed me that, "on an average, some 1,000 male prisoners, having served their sentences, are released from prison by the end of each year". That represents 1,000 men rejoining a workforce, where already 30 per cent or more are unemployed. What must this mean when the pie is already reduced for those with convictions? Apart from the numbers, this applies equally to female prisoners.

A person who is convicted in a criminal court and having been sentenced -- ie, paid his fine or done his time -- is presumed to have repaid his debt to society. And, usually, when one has repaid one's debt, it should be erased; but not so with a criminal conviction.

In the criminal court the conviction is not only recorded, but also kept as part of the police records. So, whenever prospective employers or embassies require the production of a Police Records Certificate the conviction can still cost the individual. Therefore, in reality, one's "criminal debt" is never "repaid".

This contradiction in our law has been a source of great hardship, for example, a conviction for a small amount of ganja has prevented countless individuals from obtaining a visa, rejoining families, or furthering their education, all because these convictions, irrespective of how long ago they occurred, have been preserved for posterity.

There are provisions in the law for an application to be made to the court for a conviction to be expunged, but only for sentences of three years or less. Therefore, in effect, sentences in excess of three years remain on the records forever.

The shortcoming of this provision is seen where the nature of anoffence can change over time eg, there was a time, in living memory, when the possession of, or dealing with, ganja attracted a mandatory sentence of at least 18 months, yet today the legalisation of that offence is fast approaching.

I, therefore, wish to make a recommendation to the Minister of Justice Mark Golding: Let us start an experiment by whittling away at this "repayment of debt to society", so that one who has broken the law is given the opportunity to reject crime as an option, reflect on the error of one's ways, and be possessed of the chance to pursue an honest and legal life for the future. If he drops the ball -- ie gains another conviction -- the court, then, would be entitled to show no mercy.

How do we start? We can begin by giving the judge the authority, from the date of the first conviction, to state whether or not the conviction is to be recorded at all. And, if it is to be, then on the date of release, the conviction, while remaining on the prison's records, does not form a part of the police records until there is a second offence. This would leave each convict who wishes genuinely to turn over a new leaf with the powerful incentive not to be a repeat offender. Otherwise, that convict who leaves with a reduced prospect of getting a job, instead, leaves prison with the "badge" of a graduate of the "University" of Tower Street and eminently "qualified" to enter any gang which may accept him. Is there any wonder why the number of gangs islandwide is mushrooming? The reality is that the problem is not solved when the offender is locked away, it is only postponed. It must also be recalled that the challenge of finding employment while saddled with a prison record is only one of the many difficulties facing a released offender. For he or she would have already been engulfed by low self-esteem and shattered hopes acquired during incarceration.

How do we start? We can begin by giving the judge the authority, from the date of the first conviction, to state whether or not the conviction is to be recorded at all. And, if it is to be, then on the date of release, the conviction, while remaining on the prison's records, does not form a part of the police records until there is a second offence. This would leave each convict who wishes genuinely to turn over a new leaf with the powerful incentive not to be a repeat offender. Otherwise, that convict who leaves with a reduced prospect of getting a job, instead, leaves prison with the "badge" of a graduate of the "University" of Tower Street and eminently "qualified" to enter any gang which may accept him. Is there any wonder why the number of gangs islandwide is mushrooming? The reality is that the problem is not solved when the offender is locked away, it is only postponed. It must also be recalled that the challenge of finding employment while saddled with a prison record is only one of the many difficulties facing a released offender. For he or she would have already been engulfed by low self-esteem and shattered hopes acquired during incarceration.

Everyone who has breached the criminal laws of Jamaica once ought to be given a real opportunity to strive to be lawfully and gainfully employed and to live down his/her first transgression.

Howard Hamilton, CD, QC, JP, was called to the Bar in 1959, is a principal at Hamilton & Craig, attorneys-at-law in Kingston, and was Jamaica's first public defender.

ADVERTISEMENT

POST A COMMENT

HOUSE RULES

 

1. We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper – email addresses will not be published.

2. Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.

3. We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.

4. Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.

5. Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed: advertising@jamaicaobserver.com.

6. If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email: community@jamaicaobserver.com.

7. Lastly, read our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy



comments powered by Disqus
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Poll

Do you think an increase in JUTC bus fares is justified at this time?
Yes
No


View Results »


ADVERTISEMENT

Today's Cartoon

Click image to view full size editorial cartoon
ADVERTISEMENT