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Editorial | Sykes’ backlog fear justified

Published:Wednesday | March 22, 2023 | 9:37 AM
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes

Policy actions sometimes have unintended consequences. Which is what Chief Justice Bryan Sykes fears with the Government’s intention to dramatically increase jail sentences for murder, as part of its tough-on-crime posture. He worries that this will lead to a backlog of cases in the courts, reversing the gains of recent years.

This newspaper not only shares the chief justice’s concern, but, like him, believes that more jail time will not be a deterrent to murder – or any crime – in Jamaica. The Government would have a better chance by ensuring that the police become better at solving and prosecuting crimes.

We, of course, appreciate why the administration feels impelled to look tough on crime. At 54 per 100,000, or approximately 1,500 murders annually, Jamaica has among the world’s highest murder rates. Crime does not only undermine citizens’ sense of security, but attacks their economic well-being. Crime deprives Jamaica of an estimated five per cent of its GDP annually.

That, in part, is the backdrop to which Justice Minister Delroy Chuck earlier this year unveiled a slew of legislative measures, among them much longer prison time for murder convicts: at least 30 years.

Although the death sentence remains on the books for the most hideous or repugnant forms of murder, no execution has taken place in 35 years. That is largely because of the court-imposed, five-year deadline within which it must happen, as well as systemic weaknesses that make it difficult to adhere to that deadline.

However, in addition to death, people convicted of so-called capital murder may be sentenced to life imprisonment and not be eligible for parole for 20 years. Under the proposed change, the eligibility period would be 50 years.

For non-capital murder, where the convict was sentenced to life, parole eligibility would be moved from 15 to 40 years.

SENDING A MESSAGE

Further, when someone pleads guilty to murder and would be eligible for a discount on his sentence, the judge would, under the regime, begin the discount based on a 50-year term – the new definition of life sentence. For offences other than murder, the implied life sentence would be 40 years.

Currently, people convicted in these circumstances might be eligible after 15 or 10 years, respectively. The eligibility would now be 40 and 35 years.

In no circumstance would someone who pleads guilty to, or is convicted of, a murder serve less than three decades.

“We want to send that message to persons who are contract killers, persons who are engaged in domestic abuse, and persons who can’t control themselves ... that if you do inflict a killing, you could remain in jail for a long time,” Mr Chuck told legislators.

However, the Chief Justice suggested that the impact may well be to induce persons who are guilty to take their chances at trial, rather than admit guilt.

He told journalists recently: “... If when I talk to my attorney he says, ‘Young man, if you plead guilty, it’s 15 years [and] if you go to trial ... 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 acquittal, but if you go to trial, you increase that possibility.’ As a rational person, what decision would I make?”

Saying that the rational decision would be to opt for a trial, Justice Sykes added: “So now we anticipate that the gains we have made in terms of the clearance rate ... to see a reverse in that ... .”

NOT A DETERRENT

Since his appointment as head of the courts in 2018, Chief Justice Sykes has made reducing decades of a pileup of cases a critical part of his mandate. His target is a backlog of less than five per cent within three years.

The benchmark is cases being resolved within 24 months. Any matter not cleared after two years would be categorised as backlog.

Meeting the target by 2025 requires, the chief justice’s annual statistical report for 2022 suggests, achieving “a weighted case clearance rate, or 130 per cent over the next three years across the court system”. This means resolving at least 130 cases for every 100 new ones that enter the system.

At the Supreme Court where murders are tried, the clearance rate last year was 74.95 per cent, or 14.58 better than in 2021. However, the court’s on-time disposal rate (cases cleared within two years) was 62.46, a near six percentage point slippage on two years earlier. Looked at from another perspective, roughly 38 per cent of the cases the High Court resolved in 2022 were, as the chief justice’s report put it, “in a state of backlog at the time of disposition”.

Doing anything that induces criminals who know they are guilty to take their chances with the system will only add to the backlog, without deterring other potential murderers. The deterrent, as Justice Sykes said, is an efficient and effective justice system. And that, we would add, includes a police force whose clear-up rate for murders is substantially better than 50 per cent.