20-year sentence proposed for violence against women, children

20-year sentence proposed for violence against women, children

Senior staff reporter

Monday, July 13, 2020

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LEADER of Government Business in the Senate, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, says that proposed changes to domestic violence legislation included in a report passed on Friday will contribute significantly to addressing violence against the most vulnerable Jamaicans.

Opening the debate on the report from a joint select committee (JSC) of Parliament, which was passed in the House of Representatives in November, Senator Johnson Smith noted the importance of aggravated factors being considered in the four targeted Acts — the Sexual Offences Act, the Offences Against the Person Act, the Domestic Violence Act, and the Child Care and Protection Act — to ensure stiffer penalties.

“More is required to send the signal to show that we are serious about protecting victims of domestic violence and abuse,” she told the Senate as she opened the debate.

She also welcomed a general recommendation that the legislation should be amended to “become sufficiently impactful, to ensure that anticipated violence can also be prevented”.

“So we look forward to see exactly what is proposed [in the draft Bill] as the aggravated factors should carry a mandatory sentence of no less than 20 years,” she noted.

According to the report, the joint select committee, which is made up of Members of Parliament and senators from both sides of the Parliament, expressed concern about “the particular heinous nature of some of the acts of violence, including sexual violence, perpetrated against the most vulnerable groups in the society”, and felt that the law should provide for stiffer penalties to send a strong message to the perpetrators of these acts, and for victims to feel that justice has been done.

“We, therefore, accepted the recommendation to insert a provision in the Sexual Offences Act to provide that where there are vulnerable victims of rape and grievous sexual assault [vaginal and anal] defined as a child under 12 years old, a person with a physical or mental disability, or an elderly person over 70 years old, this should be treated as an aggravating factor which would carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years,” the JSC report stated.

In terms of the murder of a pregnant woman, the committee stated that after extensive discussions, in terms of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), it had eventually agreed with the suggestion that section 2 of the OAPA, which deals with grievous bodily harm, should be amended to expressly include the victim's known or visible pregnancy as an aggravating factor in determining the sentence.

The committee noted that it was also agreed that the aggravating sentence should not only cover pregnant women, but all vulnerable individuals, including the elderly, people with disabilities and children.

However, in response to the suggestion that for sexual offence cases involving aggravating factors, where some members felt that those sentences are “generally too low” and should run consecutively rather than concurrently, the committee suggested that this should be left entirely to the discretion of the presiding judge.

Senator Johnson Smith said that, in terms of the prevalence of intimate partner violence, data has shown that Jamaica has a rating of 27.8 per cent, which is significant in terms of women who experience violence from an intimate partner. She also supported an expansion of the number of people or entities who can provide protection orders for threatened women.

“The Children's Advocate and the Bureau of Gender Affairs should be given the power to seek protection orders on behalf of the victims. There should be a way in which they can otherwise seek a protection order,” she stated.

She said, too, that this would mean that the victim would be able to approach an entity or a person with which they feel more comfortable, rather than going to the police.

She also noted that there is a proposal to increase the penalty for breach of a protection order from $10,000 to $150,000 or 12 months' imprisonment. However, she pointed out that, since the passage of the report in the House of Representatives, it has been suggested that the fine should be increased as high as $500,000, instead.

It was a motion from Senator Johnson Smith in 2013, which eventually led to the appointment of the joint select committee, a move which received unanimous support in the Senate at the time. This occurred in an atmosphere in which there was increasing discontent among the public about a sudden and dramatic rise in the murder figures, from a low of 1,097 in 2012 to 1,200 in 2013, including a spike in the number of women who were being murdered by their spouses, and children who were the victims of criminals.

However, the 2014 JSC was unable to complete its work prior to the 2016 General Election. With the change of government in February 2016, a new committee chaired by Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck was appointed to complete the process. This committee started sitting in 2017 and completed its work in December 2018. A report was tabled in the House of Representatives and approved in November 2019, after which it was tabled in the Senate for its approval.

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