Opinion: Heavier sentences

POSTED: 06/22/11 12:01 PM

Research by the council for the administration of justice suggests that between 2000 and 2009 judges in criminal court upped their sentences for similar cases by about ten percent. For violent crimes punishments became twenty percent heavier.

Dr. Frank van Tulder conducted the research to test the popular belief that judges are too soft on crime. Politicians have embraced this mantra and the cabinet has made the first step towards limiting judges’ freedom to hand down community service sentences for heavier crimes. There is also a draft law in the works that proposes minimum sentences for repeatedly committed serious crimes.

Van Tulder noted that the discussion about sentencing takes places without any knowhow about factual developments in  the administration of justice.

Van Tulder compared eleven similar heavier types of crimes,. For eight of these types, sentences became heavier, for five of them the punishment increased by 30 percent.

Sentences only went down for drug mules, but Van Tulder says this is due to the introduction of 100 percent  controls at the airport.

Only for rape and “crimes against life (murder and manslaughter) the number of sentences that included community served went down. And exactly for these crimes, the public debate about community service started back in 2007.

Van Tulder concedes that the heavier sentences courts handed down come with a strong increase in community service, while the application of imprisonment remained steady and the number of fines went down.

How does this hang in St. Maarten? To answer this question some serious research is needed, and that is not available at the moment. A rough indication shows that since 2007 sentences for murder and manslaughter went up. In 2007 killers got off with sentenced of 14 to 15 years, with one exception where the court sentenced a man to 21 years.

In 2009 Stanley Gumbs killer Devan Otto netted the highest sentence so far in the 2007-2011 period: 24 years for killing Census Office employee Stanley Gumbs in a case of mistaken identity. This year the sentences for Omar Nelson, Alesco Violenus and Stevie Richardson (between 18 and almost 23 years) stand out, but their crimes involved more than just one murder.

It is therefore not obvious whether the administration of justice in St. Maarten followed the trend in the Netherlands. For sure, when the court starts to hand down more community service as part of a sentence, the structure must be in place to make sure that convicts really complete these duties.

That is, as far as we know, still a weak point, but that goes for many things that require control and enforcement. As long as those elements are not structured well and managed properly it makes little sense to turn to community service as an alternative for, or an addition to, a prison sentence. Simply put, a criminal who is sentenced to jail time will not be able to do community service, and a criminal who gets off with a conditional jail sentence plus community service, has too many leeway for ducking his obligations.

As long as the consequences for not doing community service are awaiting convicts sometimes years further down the road, most of them will not feel the need to do what they are supposed to do. With the prison filled to capacity and no immediate relief in sight, many youngsters with less honorable intentions may feel that there was never a better time for starting a criminal career.

That this is never a good idea is fortunately obvious to most of us, but go and explain that to the Omar Nelsons of this world.


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