Columns

The failing penal system

Jason
McKay

Sunday, January 07, 2018

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The purpose and intention of sentences in a penal institution is to achieve the following:

• Retribution

• Protection of the public

• Justice to the victim

• Rehabilitation

• Dissuasion of new individuals from committing offences and sentenced individuals from again committing offences.

This is a simplification of the academic definition of what sentencing is expected to accomplish and can somewhat be regarded as a modern ambition of the penal system.

Historically, penitentiaries were intended to provide the inmate with an opportunity to be penitent as he reflected on his crimes in a largely silent, docile, and virtually inactive manner. Although the Quakers who created the concept of the penitentiary system had this intent, it morphed into a totally different model which, by the 1970s, was understood to be creating an even more depraved criminal.

This resulted in the birth of rehabilitation centres fuelled both by a realisation of the danger to society, as well as the very real concern of human rights organisations and their view of acceptable treatment of fellow human beings.

An examination of Jamaica's penal system indicates that it clearly is facilitating the retributive element of prison sentencing. I say this because anyone who has spent more than six months in our penal institutions has been exposed to mass overcrowding, squalor, random and brutal violence, and a breach of every reasonable expectation for the housing of a human being.

Needless to say, our prisons will dissuade persons from wanting to return and should give some relief to victims that justice has been served.

Therefore, it can be said that the protection of the public by the caging of convicted individuals has worked to a reasonable degree.

How about rehabilitation? The final ambition is the area that should be generating laughter right about now. If this is an ambition, I can say without any doubt that it is neither being accomplished nor even being attempted.

Let us visit an example of a penitentiary that is now a rehabilitation centre — the famous General Penitentiary, now called the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre. This 173-year-old facility stands as living representation of a prison which reflects society's view that prisoners must be treated like animals. My interviews with dozens of former inmates do not reflect an organisation that is practising any form of rehabilitation which will result in the reintroduction to society of men less dangerous than they were before.

I believe if you're not going to function as an institution that practises a rehabilitation programme then change the name, as it should be reflective of what actually happens there.

Let me make it clear, I have no problem with keeping killers, rapists, kidnappers and gang members in general in the equivalent of dungeons. But our system needs to be in sync with this.

The dichotomy that exists is that we operate a justice system that is sending offenders to jail with an intention for them to be rehabilitated, and this impacts the length of their sentencing. The end result is that they enter prison and are treated like animals whilst being exposed to a national criminal network. They therefore exit the facility significantly more subhuman than they were before, but now with contacts across the entire island.

Jamaica's recidivism rate is 29 per cent. Recidivism only speaks to offenders who are re-convicted, not those who are charged or those who commit offences again but are not caught. We all know how difficult it is to convict in our courts because of the number of cases. The fact that we are convicting 26 per cent of ex-convicts indicates a massive wave of reoffenders.

The answer is not in making our prisons better. The answer is making our prisons larger and adjusting our system to one that keeps prisoners for virtually a lifetime once they commit violent crimes, or crimes that indicate a likelihood to kill or seriously harm innocent persons.

The sentences I would suggest are 30 years to life for murder; rape, 25 to life; armed robbery, 20 years; possession of a firearm, 15 years; and sale or distribution of guns and ammunition — life.

These sentences would not be served with the eight-month prison year that presently exists, but the full 12 months of the calendar year.

This is perhaps something we could accomplish and still end up not being spanked by the international human rights organisations that control our Government's purse. We accept that they have permanently created an environment where criminal rights are more important than the right of the victim and rendered our police force bewildered, but they are limited in controlling our sentencing.

This is not to say they are powerless, which is why I have stayed away from suggesting capital punishment. But although castrated, we are still allowed some leverage in deciding our sentences.

This may seem far-fetched. However, take the time to review sentences after the Gun Court Act, which was created in 1974, and you will find men being sentenced to 25 years and upward for possession of even home-made firearms.

These sentences, I suggest, are representative of a policy that killers, rapists and generally gang members and gunmen are not rehabilitative and have given up their right to be part of society.

We have tried the soft touch approach in sentencing and it has failed, not just because of the character of criminals who go to prison in Jamaica, but because as a nation we don't have resources to waste on rehabilitation programmes to create 'nicer jails'.

We are lacking even basic equipment in our hospitals, so the focus of our spending should be on that issue as well as preventing young men from becoming criminals, rather than on men who are no longer worthy to be part of our society.

Murder, rape, gang activity and crimes that generally destroy or end other person's lives should not be considered crimes that facilitate reintroduction of the offender.

Many of the nations we look up to such as China and Singapore are already practising policies of removing dangerous criminals from society and in Singapore in particular, they even execute drug traffickers.

One could say the culture of Asian justice is different from that of our hemisphere. I would ask such believers to look on the 'three strikes, you're out' law in the United States, which carries life sentences for relatively non-major crimes in states such as Arizona, California, Connecticut and Florida.

Since the USA represents the bastion of freedom in our hemisphere, this is one area we should consider replicating.

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