Reversal of gains in case backlog likely with sentencing changes-Sykes Loop Jamaica

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Chief Justice Bryan Sykes has expressed some concern with the proposed increase of mandatory minimum sentences for murder by the Government, arguing that the move threatens to erase the gains that have been made to reduce the backlog of cases in the court system, especially in rural circuit courts.

Sykes said an accused person will possibly take his chances by the going the route of a trial, rather than pleading guilty and not being offered a reduction in sentence for doing so.

He said going to trial and having extensive delays in the process, especially in rural courts that sit specific times of the year, could benefit the accused persons in the long-term.

“… 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 circuits,” declared Sykes at Friday’s ‘ A conversation with the Judiciary’ forum at the Spanish Court Hotel in New Kingston.

In February, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck tabled in the House of Representatives, the Offences Against The Person (Amendment) Bill and the Criminal Justice (Administration) (Amendment) Bill that, when overhauled, are expected to significantly lengthen prison sentences for murder.

The proposed amendments to the Offences Against The Person Act will, for example, see an increase in the mandatory minimum sentence for imprisonment under Section 3(1)(b) from 15 years to 45 years.

Where the offence is capital murder, the proposal for an increase in the mandatory minimum sentence to be served before parole consideration will move from 20 years to 50 years under 3(1C)(a), which deals with eligibility for parole.

Sykes reminded those at the forum that “rural circuit (courts) sit nine weeks for the year, or 12 weeks for the year.”

He explained that during that time, “witnesses can, unfortunately, pass on, witnesses may migrate”.

Such scenarios, said Sykes, could favour an accused person.

“So, it suits me (an accused person) to go to trial, because the longer it takes, the chances of things going wrong increase as well,” he indicated.

“So any rational-thinking person wouldn’t enter a plea at 21 years old for 15 years. So, there is no incentive there,” stated Sykes.

Several attorneys have expressed the view that increasing the mandatory minimum sentences may not achieve its ultimate goal of deterring criminals, but, instead, may push the judicial process further into a system of delay and backlog relative to certain cases.

However, Chuck countered that argument in Parliament last month by declaring that “the reputational damage to brand Jamaica resulting from the exceedingly high murder rate and the perceptions of insecurity in the country cannot be overstated.”

He added that, “The reputational damage suffered from the abnormally high rates of intentional homicides and, by extension, the impact on the country’s GDP, the debilitating strain placed on the Jamaican populace from the daily loss of life by violent means, demands that the penalties imposed send the clear and unmistakable message to potential killers, that murderers, when caught and convicted, will be severely punished.”

Other proposed amendments to the Offences Against The Person Act are:

– increase the mandatory minimum sentence to be served before being eligible for parole, where the sentence is imprisonment for life, from 15 to 40 years under section 3(1C)(b)(I); and

– increase the mandatory minimum sentence to be served before being eligible for parole, where a sentence of a term of years is given, from 10 years to 35 years under 3(1C)(b)(ii).

Amendments to the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act will change section 42(F) by increasing the term of years to be deemed as ‘life imprisonment’ from 30 years to 50 years where the offence committed is murder.

“The starting point for calculating the reduction in the sentence is usually life imprisonment, and the aim of this proposed amendment is to maintain an incentive scheme for defendants to plead guilty, while ensuring that the reduced sentence is not inordinately low, having regard to the serious nature of the offence,” Chuck explained then.

“It is in tandem with this very reasoning that we also propose that section 42(E)(3) of the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act be amended to stipulate that the court shall not impose a sentence that is less than a term of 30 years,” he added.