Pushback at 30-year murder minimum
A King’s Counsel and human-rights lobby are cautioning the Government against tabling legislation that would impose a minimum sentence for murder of 30 years, arguing that such decisions should be left to the discretion of the courts.
Executive director of Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ), Mickel Jackson, said that while the organisation is not opposed to the Government reviewing sentencing guidelines, it was wary of what it views as a trend towards increasing minimum sentences.
“Is it a case where the prime minister has lost confidence in the court’s ability to put forward what they believe fits the circumstances of the case? I think we’re setting a dangerous precedent if it is that that’s the signal we’re sending, unintentionally or not,” she told The Gleaner Wednesday.
Her response was in reaction to the proposed sentence disclosed by Andrew Holness in Parliament a day earlier as well as the recently passed new Firearms Prohibition and Restriction Act, which carries a minimum term of 15 years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm.
Currently, the sentencing guidelines prescribe 15 years as a starting point.
Jackson insists that that legislative change would not only undermine the court’s credibility but also lead to other issues such as prison overcrowding.
She also said that harsher sentencing would not be a deterrent to criminals.
“What will deter criminals is the actual likelihood of being caught. So what we’re saying to the Government, focus on strengthening the investigative capacity of the JCF, give the JCF the tools necessary to actually be able to put forward the best evidence to secure a conviction if someone runs afoul of the law,” the JFJ executive director said.
JCF is the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
Data from the Planning Institute of Jamaica showed that guilty verdicts accounted for only 2.7 per cent of cases brought before the courts last year.
However, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck disagrees that tougher sentencing will not be a deterrent.
“It sends the emphatic denunciation of the seriousness of the crime to the extent that it sends the right signal that offences such as murder and other serious offences that they deserve the harshest and most severe penalties,” he told The Gleaner.
And in acknowledging the country’s low conviction rate, the justice minister called for more cooperation from citizens and better investment in technology.
“The key is to encourage persons who are witnesses to serious crimes, especially murder, that they are willing to come forward and be bold enough to provide the evidence,” said Chuck.
But attorney-at-law Valerie Neita-Robertson believes that any legislation geared at a 30-year minimum sentence for murder would subvert the justice system.
“When you seek to stipulate the type of sentence that a judge must give, you undermine the confidence of Jamaicans in the justice system, and you undermine the integrity of the judiciary,” the King’s Counsel said in a Gleaner interview Wednesday.
“I believe that judges are trained to take into account all the circumstances of an offence and all the circumstances of the individuals who have committed offences and to arrive at an appropriate punishment. I don’t believe the prime minister has that experience or training.”
Neita Robertson said greater focus should be placed on social programmes that she believes would decrease the country’s crime rate.