Sun | Oct 1, 2023

Tougher murder sentences won’t fix crisis, critics argue

Published:Thursday | February 23, 2023 | 1:19 AM
Defence attorney Peter Champagnie.
Defence attorney Peter Champagnie.
Dr Christopher Charles, professor of political and social psychology.
Dr Christopher Charles, professor of political and social psychology.

The Holness administration is being accused of pandering to popular sentiments with its proposal for a wholesale increase in mandatory minimum sentences for murder and is being urged to exercise “great caution” in its latest strategy to abate...

The Holness administration is being accused of pandering to popular sentiments with its proposal for a wholesale increase in mandatory minimum sentences for murder and is being urged to exercise “great caution” in its latest strategy to abate Jamaica’s high homicide rate.

The rebuttals came a day after Justice Minister Delroy Chuck tabled the Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Bill and the Criminal Justice (Administration) (Amendment) Bill in the House of Representatives to effect changes to the sentences served for murder.

Dr Christopher Charles, visiting professor of political and social psychology at the University of Missouri in the United States, has asserted that the “authoritarian” nature of several sectors within the society, including the political directorate, has caused legislators to feed into Jamaicans’ love for tough measures.

“But tough measures by themselves without a comprehensive understanding of the problem and a comprehensive array of measures – primary, secondary, and tertiary responses to crime in general and the high homicide rate, in particular – won’t amount to much,” Charles said in a Gleaner interview on Wednesday.

Section 3(1)(b) of the proposed Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Bill increases the mandatory minimum sentence from 15 years to 45 years.

Where a capital murder has been committed, Chuck proposed that the mandatory minimum sentence to be served before being eligible for parole be moved from 20 years to 50 under Section 3(1C)(a).

He also wants parole eligibility to move from 15 years to 40 where a life-imprisonment sentence has been handed down under Section 3(1C)(b)(I).

Where a term of years sentence is given, the justice minister wants the convict to serve 35 years instead of 10 years before being eligible for parole under Section 3(1C)(b)(ii).

He has also proposed 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.

His proposal also includes an amendment to Section 42(E)(3) of the act to stipulate that the court does not impose a sentence that is less than a term of 30 years.

But citing the police statistics, which indicate that 70 per cent of murders are gang-related and the other 30 per cent occur due to dysfunctions within intimate partner and social relationships, Charles said the extent to which gangs can be dismantled will determine the level of impact there is on the homicide rate of 45 per 100,000 people.

The university lecturer, who is on leave from The University of the West Indies, Mona, pointed to the Clansman-One Don Gang trial now under way, which, he said, shows clearly that there are deficiencies in the investigative capacity and ability of the police force.

“So without addressing those dysfunctions, all you are going to be doing is locking up those people. What it means is while we get tougher with laws, which is going to be popular among Jamaicans, it will never solve the problem in terms of crime and, in particular, high homicide, if we do not address the conditions that create the criminals,” he told The Gleaner.

He attributed the conditions to dysfunctional families, schools, and communities.

Meanwhile, senior criminal defence lawyer Peter Champagnie, KC, said the proposal to review the sentencing process for murder convicts comes as no surprise given that the sentencing regime under the new Firearms Act is now comparable to what obtains for those convicted of murder.

He said that while the supremacy of Parliament to legislate is unassailable, “great caution” must be exercised in seeming to treat all categories of murder in the same way.

Champagnie said that a person convicted of murder arising from domestic dispute, where self-defence fails, should not be visited with the same period of imprisonment as a person who commits murder with the use of an illegal firearm.

“What of members of the security forces, too, who are convicted of murder during the course of their duty? No two murder cases are identical, even within the categories of non-capital or capital murder. Hence the significance of a judge’s discretion,” he reasoned.

“While I recognise that the murder rate in Jamaica is astonishingly high for a county of our size, and therefore needs to be addressed, extreme mandatory sentences for murder are likely to impact on those who would otherwise wish to plead guilty. There would hardly be any real incentive to do so, with the resultant effect that there will be more trials in our already-overburdened justice system,” he told The Gleaner.

He argued that the proposed changes, which will be subjected to a joint select committee (JSC), are likely to negatively impact advancements made in clearing the backlog of cases, a similar concern expressed by Opposition Leader Mark Golding on Tuesday.

Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) Executive Director Mickel Jackson noted that such legislative changes could have far-reaching implications for human rights standards and on the criminal justice system.

“JFJ opposes what can only be described as manifestly excessive mandatory minimums,” she said.

Jackson said there are challenges with securing convictions due to lack of sufficient evidence and witnesses coming forward and noted that plea bargaining is important in securing justice for victims as well as freeing up time and much-needed resources for cases in which prosecutors and the accused cannot reach an agreement and trial becomes necessary.

“The proposed mandatory 30-year sentence to be imposed – even after a plea bargain is arrived at – disincentivises the accused, and, therefore, undermines case closure. This undermines, as well, the efforts to dismantle criminal networks as there is reduced incentive to testify against a co-accused,” said Jackson, adding that the country’s prisons are operating well over capacity and are “anachronistic and inhumane”.

She said that the “excessively high” mandatory minimums undermine commitment to justice and fairness by preventing judges from considering the individual’s background and the circumstances of his/her offences in the sentencing determination.

“JFJ is prepared to make a submission to the JSC, once formed, so that our positions are considered,” she told The Gleaner.