No 50 years for minors | Columnist

The government’s plan to sharply increase prison sentences for people convicted of murder will, in our view, prove symbolic at best. It may give the impression that the Holness government is tough on crime, but with little or no real deterrent effect.

However, the measures, in their application to children, could go beyond saving young lives gone astray and could infringe on Jamaica’s international obligations and the rights under the Constitution of the island promises to children.

For this reason, The Gleaner joins the human rights group Jamaicans for Justice – and others – in calling on the government to abandon its proposal for harsh mandatory minimum sentences for child murderers, and for the existing system of giving the courts significant have discretionary power. above those fines.

In other words, when Parliament resumes debate on this issue, the Justice Minister, Delroy Chuck, should announce that the government will not go ahead with the changes to the Child Care and Protection Act. Of course, this can only happen on the instructions of Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Mr Holness may also want to take a different turn on the adult sentencing plan, while focusing on his other initiatives to tackle crime, which he spoke about in Parliament last week. Jamaica undoubtedly has a major problem of crime and criminal violence. Although the island’s murder rate fell by 7% in 2023, there were still almost 1,400 recorded murders, giving a murder rate of approximately 51 per 100,000.

While Prime Minister Holness highlighted a range of interventions being pursued by his government – ​​ranging from reforming and modernizing the police to more and better targeted social programs – these statistics provided a crucial part of the backdrop against which Mr Chuck launched the crackdown unveiled crime sentencing regime in February 2023.

Under that system, someone convicted of capital murder (such as killing a member of the security forces or a witness to a crime) could be sentenced to death (Jamaica has had no executions in 36 years) or life imprisonment. The latter translates into a prison sentence of at least 20 years – or the minimum time a convicted person must serve before being eligible for parole. It is the government’s intention to increase that minimum period to 50 years.

For murder without the death penalty for which the court imposes a life sentence, the prisoner must serve fifteen years before being eligible for parole. The minimum prison sentence for such persons would be up to 40 years. For alternative fixed-term sentences for murder without the death penalty, the minimum sentence would be 45 years, with the right to parole starting after 35 years.

Legal officials, including the island’s Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, have warned that tougher sentences, including the basis for calculating sentence reductions for people who plead guilty to their crimes, would act as a disincentive for suspects who go this route. With little to lose, they would likely take their chances on a lawsuit, which could lead to another backlog in the courts.

But for some rights and children’s rights groups, the applicability of the new scheme to children convicted of murder has not yet attracted the same attention.

Currently, the Child Protection Act allows a minor (someone under the age of 18) to be sentenced to life in prison. Furthermore, the judge may “specify a period of time that the child must serve before being eligible for parole.”

However, under the government’s proposal, a life sentence for a minor convicted of murder would start at 50 years, with 20 years to be served before any right to parole exists. For a murder other than murder, the starting point would be 40 years, but the judge has leeway in determining when parole is possible.

“The government must take a comprehensive approach to tackling the issue of violence, especially youth violence,” Holness told parliament last week.

We agree! But not by limiting the ability of a court, which has a broad perspective on the pending case, to tailor its ruling to the specific circumstances of the case.

According to a parliamentary group that reviewed the bill, 3.02% of people charged with murder in Jamaica between 2017 and 2022 were minors. Some of that group may indeed have been hardcore deviants who needed the fullest sanction of the law.

The majority were most likely children under the wrong influence, sucked into a cruel vortex. Each represents an individual story that should be judged as such.

Which, in our opinion, expresses Section 13(3)(k) of the provisions for Jamaican children “of such protection measures as are required by reason of the status of being minors or as part of the family, society and the State “.

Furthermore, while the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Jamaica is a signatory, admits to the lawful detention of children, it emphasizes that such lawful detentions “shall be used only as a last resort and for the shortest possible period of time.” appropriate period”.

Jamaica should carefully examine whether its bill is in line with this ideal.

-Reprinted from the Jamaica Gleaner.