Stop the blame gameSunday, March 07, 2021
We have a culture on this planet to blame someone for everything. It is, frankly, why the two-party system is a failure, although it is the best of the bad lot of governmental structures.
Recently, there has been much backlash against judges for sentences being handed down in the courts in Jamaica, primarily the Gun Court. Well, to understand what is happening, let us start at the beginning.
In the 1970s during the Jamaican civil war, the Government created the Gun Court in 1974 as a mechanism of combatting the sharp increase (34 per cent) in murders from 1972.
The court was designed as a one-stop shop, where a judge could order sentences decades long without a jury deciding guilt or innocence. It was put in place by the very Parliament that created the armed thugs, so it was good that they created a solution to the crisis they spawned. Note that a Parliament is made up of two political parties, not one.
Well, harsh and long sentences do not encourage guilty pleas. So the domino effect is many trials and long waiting periods for trials. Since the Bail Act was reformed and bail became a right, this then became the situation of many men on bail for years whilst they murdered as they waited to go to prison.
With the acceptance that we cannot have a trial for every case, the need for reform was realised. The police were charging killers for gun crimes, which is usually the efficient method of removing them from society. Catching them with their gun is simpler than catching them for the murders they commit.
There is also the reality that trials for murder usually involve civilians as witnesses and jurors who are less willing to put their, and their family's lives, on the line for what is largely killers killing killers. Note that I said largely, not totally.
So the solution was the sentencing guidelines that were introduced in 2017.
It seemed to me that it would have been a good solution. It actually worked. The Gun Court has a trial in about six to eight months after a charge, sometimes even quicker.
The downside is that the guidelines guarantee a 50 per cent discount for all guilty pleas. The minimum sentences are still significant though, with 15 years to life for shooting with intent, as an example.
However, if you do not use the minimum sentence as the starting point then there has to be aggravating circumstances. Then there are additional discounts depending on the community report, etc. This, coupled with the eight-month rather than 12-month penal year, results in an offender coming out in fewer than five years for an offence that previously carried a life sentence.
So this becomes even more damaging for simple possession of a firearm that carries a minimum of three years. Note that this could in the 70s have resulted in 25 years behind bars. The end result is a Gun Court that can only rap the knuckles of the offender if he pleads guilty. This especially if it is his first offence for possession, thus explaining the St Ann scandal.
It is not that much different in the Supreme Court if you plead guilty for murder. The length of sentences though long for homicide plummet if you plead guilty.
Short sentences was never the intention of the creators of the Gun Court or the creators of the crisis, who, as I said before, were the same. So although we want to blame judges, this time in keeping with our culture of flagellation it is not their fault.
Do we blame the Parliament that brought in these sentencing guidelines?
Actually, no! They were trying to find a way to fix the issue of murderers killing while on bail, trials taking years to happen and a system that was not efficiently functioning.
If we have to blame someone, because we are that shallow, let us blame the 70s politicians for creating the gang culture, or blame the three foreign governments that fuelled the civil war.
I would prefer though that we focus on solutions rather than on 'bitching' at each other.
Let us remove the discount on sentencing, or at least reduce it. Allow the judges to start at whatever point of the sentencing range they desire without fear of appeal.
Change the penal year from eight months to 12 months and remove bail for gun offences, to include possession.
The bail aspect of my suggestion is going to involve changes to the Constitution and may even involve us no longer being a signatory to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.
This is a big deal. But so is the murder of poor people.
As big a deal that the constitutional change will cause internationally, it would have been done if we were dealing with the genocide of Jamaicans in the professional class or its wealthy from the moment it was realised that the new guidelines were the cause.
This was not the standard that Sir Alexander Bustamante, Sir Norman Manley, or 'Father' Coombs envisioned. All three were equal in the belief that people should be allowed their right to exist with dignity. That is what the unions really wanted. Well, I cannot think of a greater indignity than your life not mattering.
We need more courts, more personnel to operate them and more remand facilities.
All of that takes money. So let us stop wasting it.
Stop issuing SUVs to government ministers and give them 20 per cent import licences instead. Remove the police bodyguard detail from all but the prime minister and the national security minister. Stop renting expensive office space, whilst places like the Jamintel building downtown are empty and decaying from neglect.
That is my opinion and suggestions without a study relating to waste. Can you imagine if a study was actually conducted?
A country in a state of war does not release the enemy combatant, or war criminals for that matter. Oh, but we are not at war.
Well you tell the residents of the slums in St Catherine that we are not at war. Or tell the parents of Jasmine Dean. Or maybe pretend you are burying your child and see if it feels like you are in a war when he or she is victim number 1,000 and odd in a given year.
This rate of control by gangs is worthy of a state of war. This rate of murder is worthy of retaliation by a serious State. The mechanism exists in our court buildings.
For Christ's sake use it as intended.
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