The firearms Bill stipulates, among other things, a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for individuals convicted of illegal possession of a firearm.

THE Senate gave the nod to the new firearms Bill on Friday, with the Government compromising on the imposition of a mandatory life sentence for simple possession of an illegal weapon.

There were strong arguments mounted by Government senators in rebutting concerns from the Opposition on the imposition of mandatory life, and minimum sentences for a slew of gun-related offences under the Firearms (Prohibition, Restriction and Regulation) Act 2022.

An individual convicted of simple possession of a firearm will now face a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. However, mandatory life and minimum sentences remain attached to a number of other offences in the bill, including stockpiling of three or more prohibited weapons; trafficking in prohibited weapons; and the manufacture of such weapons. For these offences, convicts are eligible for parole after 20 years.

Under the amended fifth clause offenders will not serve more than a maximum of 25 years if convicted, compared to the possibility of life, if parole is rejected after 15 years, as initially proposed.

SCOTT-MOTTLEY... mandatory sentencing will not resolve the issues

Changes have also been made to address what was the disparity relating to simple possession, and possession with intent to injure to impose a sentence of up to 20 years, for the latter offence.

The offences of injuries to person and serious damage to property have also been adjusted, making convicts liable to imprisonment for life (with eligibility of parole after 15 years) for injury to a person, and a term of up to 15 years for serious damage to property.

The Bill is now eligible for review after five years, instead of seven as was previously proposed. Opposition Senator Donna Scott Mottley, in her remarks in the debate, cautioned that the legislation needs to be given time to work as too short a review period would neither test its efficacy nor show whether the legislation has truly had a deterrent effect.

Closing the debate, Deputy Leader of Government Business in the Senate, Matthew Samuda told senators that, "the last time we were safe statistically was in the 1980s, and the last time before that was the 1960s. So if you have a problem that has persisted for 40 years and your sentencing hasn't matched the crime, and we continue pushing out young men who are recommitting crime and wondering why we have these results [then] we have to do something different". He dismissed arguments that the Bill had been rushed, stressing that was in fact 30 years late and had been under substantial deliberations since February this year at the joint select committee.

SAMUDA... the last time we were safe statistically was in the 1980s and the last time before that was the 1960s

In the debate leading up to the passage of the Bill, Senator Sherene Golding Campbell, agreeing with the harsher penalties and sentences for the commission of gun-crimes, contended that it is Parliament that determines law, not the judiciary."

The people decide who they wish to represent them, to form government, and to make decisions about the legislative framework that must secure law and order in our society.

We the people don't elect judges. There is no question that judges have their independent role and function and they are an essential part of our system of governance. They interpret the law and they make decisions as well as a person charged with an offence has been proven to breach the law — but judges do not and ought not [to] make law.

That responsibility is firmly placed within the purview of the elected representatives of the people and ought not to be interfered with," she stated.

Furthermore, she said judges aren't being stripped of their discretion as there are a number of checks and balances involved in a trial. Meanwhile, Senator Scott-Mottley warned that almost all the cases will go to trial, pointing out that of the more than 600 cases of illegal possession recorded in 2021, there were only 220 convictions. She said Jamaica has always had strong anti-gun laws under both administrations, and that repressive and oppressive action in the society to send a signal is ineffective. She said governments have a duty to listen to the populace and make balanced decisions without emotion.

She said while the Opposition acknowledges that the country is in a desperate crime situation, mandatory sentencing will not resolve the issues, noting that across the region courts are moving away from mandatory sentencing, and preserving the discretion of the judiciary. The firearms Bill, which will replace the 1967 Act, is intended to modernise offences, penalties and fines, and provide a stronger deterrent to the illegal importation and use of illegal and prohibited weapons.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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