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Plea bargaining can help with case backlog — Bridgewater

BY HORACE HINES Observer staff reporter hinesh@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, October 22, 2012    

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MONTEGO BAY, St James — US Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater is advocating the use of plea bargaining to assist with clearing up the backlog of cases in the judicial system.

"We know that plea bargaining can free up valuable time and resources for cases in which prosecutors and the accused cannot reach an agreement in their mutual interests, and trial becomes necessary," the US diplomat argued.

"We are encouraged that Jamaica is examining existing ways to reduce its backlog of court cases," she added.

Noting that "Jamaica's laws allow for plea bargaining between the Government and the accused parties in order to facilitate prompt trials", the American emissary stated, while arguing that the provision is seldom applied.

She revealed that last month a United States prosecutor facilitated a one-day workshop in Kingston in which "ways to make Jamaica's plea bargaining system work better" were explored. The seminar was attended by, among others, Minister of National Security Peter Bunting, Justice Minister Senator Mark Golding, Chief Justice Zaila McCalla, Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington, and 100 judges, magistrates, prosecutors, defence attorneys, and police officers.

Ambassador Bridgewater argued, too, that the backlog often undermines law enforcement efforts.

"Such inefficacy contributes to impunity for many of the worst criminal offenders and gangs, an abnormally low rate of violent crimes convictions, lack of cooperation by witnesses and jurors, frustration among police officers, prosecutors, judges, and the public. This comes at significant social cost, drain on the economy, and disincentive for tourists and international investment," she said.

"We believe the judicial system must administer justice to criminals and enable offenders to become rehabilitated. Those persons who labour in criminal courts to advocate or adjudicate criminal matters on behalf of the state are often ill-equipped, understaffed and overwhelmed."

While acknowledging that faced with acute fiscal challenges, Jamaica is not in a position to inject more resources into the justice system, she highlighted alternate approaches to tackling the problem and pledged America's support.

"The United States, for example, will provide for court training for prosecutors that will allow them to work more efficiently and effectively. Relatively small investments in training, advisors, computerised case management systems, and digital court reporting equipment can yield good dividends," she noted.

Bridgewater, meanwhile, said she was impressed with the nation's war on corruption and lauded the five-year-old Anti-Corruption Branch.

"I am happy to report that under the leadership of Commissioner Ellington, the JCF's Anti-Corruption Branch has identified and removed officers engaged in corrupt and unethical behaviour. Since 2007 when it started, more than 400 JCF officers have been dismissed for corruption or ethical violations," Ambassador Bridgewater said.

She added: "Jamaica has made progress in its battle against corruption with the passage of the key anti-corruption laws and the establishment of the Office of the Contractor General. Corruption has no place anywhere, and particularly not in the law enforcement and judicial systems where it undermines the credibility needed for security forces to have citizens' respect".

The Ambassador was speaking Saturday night at the St James Civic Committee Annual Police Ball held at the Montego Bay Convention Centre.

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