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'We have to put a lid on crime'

Published:Sunday | April 11, 2010 | 4:00 AM

Barbara Gayle, Senior Staff Reporter

A SPECIAL call has been made for the Office of the Director of Public Pro-secutions to throw out weak cases which have no hope of conviction.

Supreme Court Judge Marva McDonald-Bishop made the call last week Wednesday when she outlined some of the problems facing the justice system, one of which is the huge backlog of cases.

"On the other side of the coin, there are those weak cases with no hope of a conviction which the prosecution refuses to throw in at an early stage. There is this notion to put it up and let it fall. Hard decisions have to be taken if we are to clear the system of this seemingly perpetual clog," the judge said.

She disclosed that despite provision for plea-bargaining, this did not seem to be an attractive innovation. She said even with the strongest of cases, which hardly had any prospects of an acquittal, pleas were not forthcoming, and so a great deal of valuable court time was being utilised to try cases in which the outcome was inevitable.

"Attorneys must advise their clients as to the benefits that can be derived from an early plea of guilty," because, she said, it attracted a substantial discount in sentencing.

"The defence psychology must undergo radical transformation if the backlog is to be cleared," she added.

Judges were not spared. McDonald-Bishop said they, too, had to be proactive, and should guard against wasting precious judicial time.

"We must insist on punctuality and send a strong signal that absenteeism of counsel will not be tolerated."

There have been numerous complaints from the public about disparities in sentencing. The judge, in touching on the topic, said, "We need to be more consistent and uniform in our approach to sentencing."

Judge-shopping

McDonald-Bishop said if there were some degree of predictability as to likely sentencing for a given offence, then persons might be more willing to enter into a plea bargain. She warned that once there was no such predictability or uniformity, "judge-shopping will always be with us and the speedy disposal of cases will be hampered".

McDonald-Bishop is of the view that the legal-aid system is not working effectively and the reason for this was the long delay by successive governments to pay lawyers who are on the legal-aid list. She called on the Government to pay the lawyers, because this was contri-buting to the backlog of cases. She disclosed that when she presided in courts outside of Kingston, she had to send miles away to get lawyers to do legal-aid cases, and that resulted in the adjournment of cases.

She called for judges to be given wider powers to try certain cases - such as carnal abuse and rape - without a jury. She pointed out that a judge sitting in the Gun Court can try a rape case in which a gun was involved, while a rape case involving the use of a knife had to be tried by a jury.

Shortage of jurors

The courts have, over the years, experienced difficulty getting sufficient jurors, and according to McDonald-Bishop, if judges were given powers to try certain cases without a jury, the disposal of cases would be expedited.

The courts have also, over the last few months, been experiencing a shortage of paper. McDonald-Bishop commented that even paper to photocopy statements and documents for defence lawyers and accused persons was contributing to the delay.

McDonald-Bishop is calling on all law-abiding citizens to play their part in supporting the justice system. She said they should not continue to ask what the justice system can do for them because the time has come for them to ask what they can do for the justice system.

Senior Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Diahann Gordon-Harrison informed the court that time was wasted getting DNA results from the forensic laboratory in rape cases when defence lawyers were aware that accused persons were running a defence of consent. She called on the defence lawyers to break the trend of holding their cards close to their chest until the very last moment. She said murder continued to be the dominant offence on the court list, followed by sexual offences.

In response, McDonald-Bishop said the issue of disclosing the defence was a sticky point for lawyers who felt they did not have to show their hand at an early stage. She said when consent was raised in rape cases, then time should not be wasted getting results from the laboratory.

The increase in the crime rate was blamed for the backlog, with McDonald-Bishop saying that when two cases were disposed of, there were 10 more waiting to come into the system. "We have to put a lid on crime," she stressed. She warned that if the spate in crime continued unabated, causing a greater inflow into the criminal justice system, then the outflow would not progress, even with a full complement of judges, additional courthouses and the best case management in the world.

She is warning that much will not be achieved if witnesses continued to run scared and people continued to take an oath of silence.

barbara.gayle@gleanerjm.com