Focus on police capacity and evidence quality rather than draconian laws!
Are penalties becoming unduly harsh?

Dear Editor,

I am concerned by what appears to be a further move toward the crippling of judicial discretion based on statements made by Prime Minister Andrew Holness regarding his Administration's intention to modify the laws related to murder in the Offences Against the Person Act.

The prime minister, in a statement on January 14, 2023, proposed that for capital murder the penalty will be death. If not applied, then life imprisonment without parole, and for non-capital murder the penalty will now be life imprisonment, serving 45 years before consideration of parole. The current capital murder provision is identical to the prime minister's proposal except there is the possibility for parole after a minimum of 20 years served.

The non-capital murder provision does provide the option of life imprisonment or any other such sentence as the judge sees fit, not being less than 15 years. These are extremely considered yet tough provisions, whereby discretion is preserved that can be properly applied to the nuances in each case and require no amendment in my view. What is necessary is to increase the quality of evidence provided by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) to ensure proportionate sentences can be delivered by the court.

I am concerned that proposed legislative changes are not being made with consideration of the current capacity of our justice system. Prison overcrowding and understaffing as well as the human rights violations that come with those conditions are a strain on the system. With the new Firearms Act already guaranteeing an increase in the prison population with its mandatory minimum sentencing and the Bail Bill seeking to do the same with the possibility of provisions for pre-charge detention and the removal of some discretion to grant bail, there is concern that the already untenable situation in our prison systems could become invariably worse. What is of further concern is the likely strain to be added to the Court Administration Division as accused individuals would be less likely to plead guilty if no discretion is available to affect their ultimate sentence.

I urge the Government to place its focus on increasing the resources that encourage more fulsome investigation and evidence gathering. Tools, such as body cameras; more extensive training in crime scene preservation and evidence gathering; increased training in community policing; and a focus on building community ties as well as providing adequate compensation for officers expected to carry out these duties, including the requisite overtime pay, can be used to increase the capacity of the JCF and provide stronger evidence that will yield to the already strong maximum penalties in court.

Jade Williams

Policy and advocacy specialist

Jamaicans for Justice

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