The number of new criminal cases filed in the parish courts in 2021 was nearly 50 per cent higher than the year before, with breaches of the Disaster Risk Management (Amendment) (DRMA) Act the most frequent criminal charge.
The information is contained in the Economic and Social Survey (ESSJ) 2021 edition, a publication of the Planning Institute of Jamaica.
There were 31,015 new criminal cases in the parish courts in 2021, representing a 46.5 per cent increase when compared with 2020.
The survey listed DRMA breaches, assault occasioning bodily harm and unlawful wounding – with males accounting for 77.5 per cent of those charged – as the three most frequent criminal charges, but did not provide a breakdown of the number of charges in the three categories.
The DRMA measures were in force to help limit the spread of the coronavirus on the island.
Under the DRMA, the Government instituted a day/night curfew, limited gatherings in public spaces, placed communities under quarantine, enforced a mask mandate, enforced no movement days, banned entertainment activities and shuttered schools among other measures.
Among the most frequent breaches of the DRMA for which persons were brought before the courts and fined, were:
-Attending illegal parties
-Not wearing a mask in public
-Unauthorised gathering and breaching the gathering limit
-Breaching the curfew
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the parish courts in other ways during 2021. According to the ESSJ, 78 per cent of hearings took place via video or teleconference, resulting in a sharp increase in the number of cases heard as a result.
Meanwhile, 64.2 per cent of hearings in the Supreme Court were by video conference, 23.4 by teleconference with the remaining12.4 per cent being in person hearings in what was described as a multimodal approach.
As such, while the number of court days was reduced, the number of cases filed and heard increased. The ESSJ said this was the case in both the Supreme and Parish Courts. It outlines that the case clearance rate, which is closely related to the case disposal rate, provided a measure of the number of cases disposed (regardless of date/year of initiation) for every new case filed in a particular period.
“The higher the case congestion rate of a court, the more burdensome the caseload and the longer it will take to dispose of cases,” the ESSJ said.
It said the Corporate Area Parish Court – criminal division, with 20.7 per cent, followed by the St Catherine and St James Parish Courts, with 16.3 per cent and 10.9 per cent, respectively, accounted for the three largest proportions of the 31,015 new criminal cases that were filed in 2021.
The parish courts of St Mary, Trelawny and St Thomas accounted for the lowest shares of the aggregate new cases filed, each with under four per cent.
Meanwhile, the overall average disposal rate for cases originating in 2021 increased by 12.9 percentage points to 77.5 per cent. The Westmoreland Parish Court had the highest disposal rate of 89.5 per cent, while the Manchester Parish Court had the lowest with 65.3 per cent. Of note is that 10 of the 13 parish courts had a disposal rate of over 70 per cent.
“The increase in the case disposal rate positively impacted the case clearance rate, with the overall case clearance rate increasing to 106.5 per cent, 10.4 percentage points higher than in 2020,” the survey said.
As with the disposal rate, the Westmoreland Parish Court had the highest case clearance rate of 125.2 per cent, while the Clarendon Parish Court had the lowest at 95.2 per cent.
At the same time, the overall case congestion rate recorded for the criminal division of the parish courts was 136.1 per cent, a 20.8 percentage point reduction compared with 2020. The Clarendon Parish Court had the highest congestion rate, 190.1 per cent, and the Westmoreland Parish Court had the lowest, 107.3 per cent.
The ESSJ said guilty pleas continued to account for the largest proportion of cases disposed, with 48.7 per cent, followed by dismissed cases, 17.0 per cent. Guilty verdicts accounted for 2.7 per cent and not-guilty verdicts, 11.1 per cent. Mediated settlements accounted for roughly 8.5 per cent of the cases disposed.
The conviction rate (sum of guilty pleas and guilty verdicts) increased by 13.7 percentage points to 51.4 per cent. Almost 40.0 per cent of cases were disposed of within 90 days and 60.6 per cent within six months.
On average, the criminal division of the parish courts took seven months to dispose of cases.