Today’s Opinion: Prison cells and sentence reductions

POSTED: 03/25/11 12:12 PM

Prosecutor mr. M. Overmeer put the cat among the pigeons with her statement about the conditions in the police cells yesterday. The conditions in especially the old police cells have been a bone of contention for years and there has never been any doubt in law enforcement circles – including the prosecutor’s office – that these conditions were way below acceptable standards.

Overmeer added a new dimension to this discussion by pointing out that detention is a form of punishment and that, as we understand her words, cells should not be too comfortable. The prosecutor said that there is already a trend among law breakers in Saba and Statia who apparently go with a smile on their face to the lock up because the conditions there are better than they are at home.

Overmeer’s main point however went beyond the comfort of the police cells. She targeted the policy to grant sentence reductions to detainees who spend longer than ten days in a police cell. For every seven days suspects spend longer than that at the station instead of in a prison cell in Pointe Blanche, they receive a standard sentence reduction of one month.

Overmeer noted that this leads to a speedier release of convicts and that law-abiding citizens do not understand this. Stronger, they feel short-changed because in the public’s mind a criminal who stole their property or who did them harm in any other way, ought to remain behind bars for at least a decent amount of time.

But the sentence reductions, that sometimes amount to eight months or more – depending on the time a suspect was forced to stay in a police cell – indeed gets criminal sooner back on the streets.

The sentence reduction, Overmeer said, is designed to send a signal to the government. It has to make sure that there is sufficient detention capacity available. But since this is not going to happen any time soon given the financial restraints that hold the government itself prisoner, so to speak, there is no point sending this signal any longer. The government is well aware of the prison cell capacity situation, yet it is incapable to come up with a speedy solution.

By continuing this policy, the prosecutor argued, citizens get the wrong message. mr. Overmeer did not use the following words, but we understand her to mean that people start thinking that it is okay to commit crimes these days because there is no place to put the bad guys away anyway. That way of thinking will obviously lead to more crime, exactly what we do not need in St. Maarten.

The system makes law abiding citizens pay the price for its own inability to provide sufficient cell capacity. That sums up Overmeer’s position.

We agree with the prosecutor that sending criminals on their way with comfy sentence reductions (or to keep sentences light or conditional due to the lack of cells) creates an unhealthy atmosphere. It does indeed send the wrong message.

But we do not think that this is reason enough to abolish the policy. Judge Keppels expressed a similar sentiment. She understands the dissatisfaction among citizens, but she also feels that it is not right to put the burden for the government’s inability to deliver the facilities the justice system needs for its proper functioning, on the shoulders of individual suspects.

It feels a bit like a Mexican standoff. If nothing moves, the situation will remain what it has been for years: a justice system that does its job but that is ultimately working with the hands tied behind the back. The sheer shortage of cell capacity will force judges to take decisions they do not want to take.

That puts the focus on the man who carries the responsibility for the situation – Justice Minister Roland Duncan. We’re not saying that he is responsible for the situation in the sense that it is all his fault that there are not enough cells, but he is currently in charge of it.

The Minister has plans to build a new prison. That’s good, of course, but as we all know, those projects take time. One only has to look at the new government administration building to come to the realization that finishing government construction projects is not the forte of our governments. It will take years before a new prison will be ready to receive the first inmates.

In the meantime, Duncan will simply have to look elsewhere for prison capacity. Curacao has no space, the Netherlands is far away and sending prisoners over there is too expensive anyway. This newspaper’s probe into the willingness of the Netherlands to come to the rescue with additional resources or facilities has shown that The Hague will turn a blind eye to this situation – but at the same time Dutch politicians will keep screaming that St. Maarten has to do something about maintaining law and order.

Maybe the best solution is to bring in a commercial floating prison for the time being. It will cost a few pennies, but hey, Minister Duncan might just be capable of convincing the Netherlands that it has to contribute to the funding of such a temporary solution.

 

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