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Punishment must be swift and certain

Friday, March 4, 2016

Without consequences for actions, there comes a time when there is little hope of correction for the bad behaviour demonstrated by the delinquent youth, who in turn, becomes tomorrow’s adult criminal. 

There is a saying that “he who spares the rod hates his son but he who loves him, disciplines him promptly.” The use of punishment to shape behaviour has long been used as a form of social control by the State via the criminal justice system. According to Mark Kleiman in his book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment,” the criminal justice system operates best when we offer “swift and certain punishments for well-defined misbehaviours.” 

In T&T, inefficiencies that abound in the administration of justice create the impression to would-be criminals that there is no real consequence for their behaviour. As a result, they carry out their nefarious activities with impunity on an unsuspecting public. Lengthy delays between the commission of crimes and the application of appropriate punishments are a regular feature in our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, our judicial system is burdened by the tremendous backlog of cases that has served to stymie it.    

Research has consistently shown that “swift and certain” punishment for violating laws sends a consistent message to offenders about personal responsibility and accountability. A swift judicious response to an infraction improves the perception that the sanction is fair and that the immediacy is a vital tool in shaping behaviour. 

Certainty and swiftness work better than severity; the challenge is how to turn that idea into a reality in the face of scarce resources. Thus, apart from “punishment and severity,” “swiftness and certainty” should be included in the arsenal of the criminal justice system of this country. 

In contrast, the reality is that we have remanded inmates “rotting in jail” for upwards of ten years on the extreme end of the scale waiting for their matters to be heard. Further, the matter becomes even more disturbing when one factor is the possibility that many accused could in fact be innocent! 

Given the disturbing wide time gap between the commission of crimes and determination of their matters, offenders are unable to make the link between crime and punishment. As such, what started as the pursuit of justice is transformed into severe “injustice” with all the attendant negatives on the path of the offender and the system as a whole. 

The level of frustration experienced by accused people makes the prison environment highly volatile. Firstly, many more people remain incarcerated which directly contributes to prison overcrowding and the real possibility of increased violence. Secondly, prison officers’ lives are put at risk as the ratio of officers to inmates increases. Thirdly, health risks abound as cramped quarters create the perfect environment for diseases such as tuberculosis to spread easily as the air quality diminishes. 

Fourthly, overcrowding generates many headaches for prison administrators to manage, in particular, classification and rehabilitation. Classification is where different categories of prisoners are separated. For example, first-time offenders are usually separated from seasoned criminals to avoid contamination. This is unlikely in overcrowded conditions. Fifthly, rehabilitation initiatives are also undermined as spatial arrangements and resources become much more challenging. And, sixthly, the possibility of escapes occurring also increases as security measures are strained to the limit.  

On the alleged offender’s side, many are forced to plead guilty when innocent. Offenders in a number of instances receive sentences that are far less than the time they would have served in the remand prison. This is what we absolutely don’t want! Offenders who have suffered in this type of system may have built up so much resentment and hatred for the state’s system that they may take it out on an unsuspecting population in the form of heinous crimes when released.  

Collectively, all of the above go against principles of human rights as enshrined by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights to which T&T is a signatory. 

In the face of all of this, new ways of intervention must be found as we strive as a people for greater efficiency and effectiveness in our social institutions. There was a recent announcement by the Chief Justice that they are considering incorporating the Nigerian model of case management to address the backlog of cases as well as case management and case administration generally. 

Establishing specialised courts to address specific types of offences such as a drug court and gun court or even night courts are just some examples that should be given priority. Such ideas become imperative as we endeavour to increase public safety and develop an ordered and harmonious society as we move forward in the 21st century. 

Contact the Caribbean Institute for Security and Public Safety at 223-6999, 222-8347, [email protected] or for almost 100 courses on law enforcement, corrections, corporate security, OSH/HSE, supervision and management courses, etc, for companies and individuals. 


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