Opinion: Prison crisis

POSTED: 04/24/12 12:07 PM

Justice Minister Roland Duncan has a situation on his hands. It’s not new of course, the fact that St. Maarten is struggling with too many criminals and not enough cells to put them away, but until now the judicial system somehow managed to cope by cutting a few corners here and there.

Police cells and part of the immigration detention center in Simpson Bay have been designated as Houses of Detention, and the minister promised in December that the detainees in these temporary cells would be transported daily to Pointe Blanche to take part in the prison’s day-program.

Pointe Blanche has no more space for suspects in preventive custody; these are suspects that still have to go to trial. For years the practice has been to keep these suspects longer than is legally permitted in police cells. Some suspects have spent more than eighty days at the police station – and that was in the time that there were only old police cells.

The court routinely gave these suspects a standard one month sentence reduction for each week they spent longer than ten days in a police cell. But those days are gone and the consequences are immediate: last week the Judge of Instruction ordered the immediate release of three suspects from the immigration detention center.

We don’t want to be too pessimistic about this, but all the same, we fear that these three will prove to be trendsetters. The Judge of Instruction will order the release of more suspects in the near future. It is unavoidable, because the system is jam-packed.

And the Judge of Instruction has made clear in recent rulings that he recognizes the problem, but that the consequences should not be unloaded on suspects.

In October of last year a ruling stipulated that keeping suspects in preventive custody at the police station for more than ten days is unacceptable. Another ruling orders that suspects who are not placed in a House of Detention within two times 24 hours after a court order have to be released immediately.

The October court ruling blasted the government for failing to come up with tangible results.

The practical result is that violations of detainees’ rights will more and more meet with a court order for their immediate release. Attorneys will have a field day and their clients will be happy as nails.

Potentially this situation court lead to more crime, because the immediate release orders do not take into account what the detainee is accused off: it could be a simple burglary, or an armed robbery; it could be rape or murder.

However, we assume for the time being that the prosecutor’s office will do its utmost to find or create a place for the suspects of the most serious of crimes. When the system starts failing to achieve even that, all hell will break loose because St. Maarten would become a society where crime pays and where criminal suspects have a bigger chance to regain their freedom than to ever serve a sentence for whatever they did.

The process has revealed our government’s Achilles heel: a serious lack of funding.

But does it have to be this way? We picked up murmurs that Governor Holiday ought to step in, or that the Dutch government ought to offer help. There is an agreement between the Kingdom partners about assistance in case one country has insufficient cell capacity to house its criminals.

The question is whether Minister Duncan is ready to pick up the phone and call The Hague. It is all very well to talk about adapting the Box in Cay Hill, but it could still take years before the first prisoners walk through the door there – if it ever happens at all. In the meantime, the community has to put up with criminal suspects that freely roam the streets, only because the government is unable or unwilling to create a solution for their detention.

Our proven formula (Intention + Action = Result) sheds some light on the situation. Since it is abundantly clear that there is no result in terms of the sorely needed additional prison cells, one must truly wonder what the intention of this government is.

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