Opinion: Alternatives (Overflowing prisons)

POSTED: 08/23/11 12:28 PM

Attorney generals and ministers seem to have found a taste for tossing around solutions for the overflowing prisons in the Caribbean. And from what we hear, there are some good suggestions among them.
Justice Minister Roland Duncan reconfirmed yesterday that he wants to test a bail-system. Not everybody is happy with that system, but the situation we’re in, choices are as limited as resources.
The idea is simple: suspects of a certain category of crimes will be allowed under the bail-system to go home after paying the government a guarantee-sum. That money should be enough to keep them from fleeing justice.
Okay, we all know about American criminals who are jumping bail, and about the bounty hunters who make a living of catching them, but St. Maarten is not the United States, and besides, we do not expect that suspects of serious crimes like murder, armed robbery and rape, will qualify for bail. That is simply not going to happen.
We are therefore looking forward to the introduction of the bail-system and to its effects. For one, it will offer the overcrowded prison system some relief – not forever of course because sooner or later the suspects who are out on bail will have their day in court – and that could still result in a prison sentence.
What else is there to do to take pressure off the prison system? The ideas vented by Aruba’s attorney general sound attractive. He suggested last week that judges ought to to hand down more suspended prison sentences, in combination with conditions that are specific for each convict.
Again, such a system will not apply to heavy criminals. But for others? We could well imagine a suspended sentence for a rebellious student who went for a fellow-student with a machete in an uncontrolled attack of rage. The reason for the attack – jealousy, plain anger – does not really matter.
What we have here is a case of a youngster who has no clue about what he did to a fellow human being. Should we stick him in Pointe Blanche, where he will snuggle up to the real criminals? Or should we give him a suspended sentence and teach him a useful lesson?
A suspended sentence always comes with probation. For instance: a 6 months suspended sentence combined with 2 years probation. If the offense is more serious, the court will tend to impose the maximum probation period of three years.
A suspended, or conditional sentence, keeps somebody who broke the law out of jail. But as the word conditional implies – there are conditions. That’s where the current system often goes wrong.
How often did we not encounter a defendant in the courthouse who appeared to have a previous conviction that included community service? And how often did it not appear that the suspect never did the community service?
The excuses defendants come up with are amazingly weak. They report to Claudius Buncamper, as instructed by the prosecutor’s office, and when they arrive, Buncamper is not there. That happens on occasion, but it is of course not an excuse for not doing the community service at all.
While we do not have exact figures at our disposal, we have strong indications that too often community service means nothing at all to young criminals, because they simply don’t do it, and they get off the hook without any consequences.
That obviously has to change. We need to have a structure in place that makes sure that community service is done – and done well. That requires a control system and the question is who will be charged with this, and who will pay for it.
But once that control system is in place, community service will have an effect on young law-breakers because what they find themselves doing is working without getting paid for it.
In the Netherlands the justice system has added an extra dimension to community service by equipping convicts with colored jackets. This way, law-abiding citizens are able to see that community service is done (and that there is a convicted criminal in their neighborhood). For the convicts all this is less fun, because it reeks a bit of publicly shaming them. Let that be so: it just may stop other youngsters from breaking the law.
Another condition that could be applied is anger management, or a social skills workshop. Again, these conditions need to be controlled, and youngsters who don’t stick to them ought to be sent to jail.
We gather that the choice between an anger management course and six months in a dreary Pointe Blanche prison cell should not be too difficult.

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