Wed | Nov 22, 2017

Editorial | Justice reform and sentence reduction

Published:Saturday | October 21, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Sentence reduction for defendants who enter early guilty pleas in their criminal trial is a step in the right direction in seeking to reform Jamaica's creaking justice system, which suffers from inordinate delays.

Introduced in May this year, the second round of the initiative in Kingston and St Andrew saw 40 defendants admitting their guilt in cases ranging from murder to child stealing. Their sentences could be slashed by half for participating in this initiative by not wasting valuable court time and resources.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn fully appreciates that removing these 40 cases from the trial list would have lifted a huge burden from the shoulders of her overstretched staff. Understandably, she wants to see sentence-reduction days introduced in all the island's Circuit Courts once a term. To this end, she has called for the initiative to be expanded nationwide.

Between the point of arrest and trial, the main players involved are the police, the DPP's office, the courts, accused persons, witnesses, lawyers and the judiciary. Delays in completing court files and locating witnesses have grown to the extent that it now takes years for a case to reach trial. In some of the cases currently under review, as many as a dozen witnesses were due to be called, and even when all the witnesses are available, sometimes there are not enough jurors or the attorneys are absent, or exhibits are missing, or forensic evidence is lacking. All of these factors converge to create a huge backlog of cases, said to be about 2,000 at last count.

EARLY GUILTY PLEAS SAVE TIME, MONEY

When defendants enter early guilty pleas, they free up police resources so they can conduct investigations, ease the workload of overburdened prosecutors, and prevent the waste of judicial time and save public money.

While we laud the usefulness of the sentence-reduction initiative, we also recognise that the justice system requires a complete overhaul to bring into effect a modern system that will adequately serve the needs of the majority of Jamaicans. The issue of reform has been debated and hours of conversations have taken place around the topic. And despite external help, the evidence points to deep challenges with implementing comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system.

Everyone seems to agree that efficiency in the operations of the nation's courts will go a far way in delivering justice. So the goals of criminal justice reform should be aimed at reducing the backlog of cases so that trials are conducted in a timely and fair manner. The number of defendants in prison relates to the number of people admitted and released from prison.

It requires a functioning criminal justice system for a society to thrive. Successive governments have, however, been too slow to respond to various cracks in the system. Small gaps have become major cracks that have grown into fissures which have now pushed the system to breaking point.

The backlog of cases is an example of slow response. It did not happen overnight. The build-up has happened over time and is part of a larger malaise afflicting the judicial system. This is how we have come to this place: Case lists get longer and longer, there are not enough prosecutors, not enough judges and not enough courtrooms. The result is that defendants and victims are disillusioned by a system that is incapable of dispensing justice on time.