Sykes: Mandatory minimum sentences threaten backlog reduction gains
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes yesterday stopped short of disagreeing with a proposal from the Government to increase mandatory minimum sentences, noting that the move threatens to reverse the gains made by the court in terms of its significant reduction in backlog.
Sykes said that the proposal, if accepted, will not incentivise accused persons to plead guilty.
“… If when I speak to my attorney he says, ‘Young man if you plead guilty, it’s 15 years. If you go to trial at the judge’s benevolence, you still end up with a minimum of 15 years. If you don’t go through a trial you don’t increase the possibility of an acquittal but if you go through a trial, you increase that possibility,” Sykes said.
“So, as a rational person what decision would I make? So now, we anticipate that the gains that we have made in terms of clearance rate and so on, I expect to see reverses in that, especially with the rural circuit,” he added.
The chief justice was speaking to journalists during Friday’s ‘A conversation with the judiciary’ forum at the Spanish Court Hotel in New Kingston.
Sykes said rural courts sit nine to 12 weeks for the year.
“So it means that any matter that isn’t done in this term is going to go down to June or July. The next time after that is November/December,” he said.
Sykes said that during that time, witnesses may die or migrate, all of which work in the accused favour.
“So it suits me to go to trial because the longer it takes the chances of things going wrong increase as well. So any rational-thinking person wouldn’t enter a plea at 21 years old for 15 years. So there is no incentive there,” Justice Sykes said.
He said in other jurisdictions, such as the Cayman Islands they incentivise the process where notwithstanding the minimum, if an accused pleads guilty the range offered is significantly lower than the 15 years.
Last month, Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck tabled the Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Bill and the Criminal Justice (Administration) (Amendment) Bill.
In tabling the bills in the House of Representatives, Chuck said the reputational damage to the country because of abnormally high rates of intentional homicides demands that the penalties imposed send the clear and unmistakable message to potential killers that when caught and convicted, they will be severely punished.
However, Opposition Leader Mark Golding and some defence attorneys subsequently argued that the bills will cause the case backlog to balloon.
Several courts have seen a significant reduction in backed-up cases, including the Hanover and St Mary parish courts and the Gun Court. Fewer than 10 such cases are currently before the Hanover Parish Court.
Further, Sykes noted that harsh penalties have no impact on crime.
He said an efficient and effective justice system is what will deter people from committing crimes.
Under the Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Bill, Chuck is proposing amendments to Section 3(1)(b) to increase the mandatory minimum sentence from 15 years to 45 years.
Where a capital murder has been committed, he has proposed that the mandatory minimum sentence to be served before being eligible for parole moves from 20 years to 50 under (3(1C)(a).
He is also proposing to amend Section 42(F) of the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act by increasing the term of years to be deemed as life imprisonment from 30 years to 50 years where the offence committed is murder.