Today’s Opinion: Responsibilities

POSTED: 05/26/11 12:39 PM

The teenager who stood trial yesterday for a machete attack on a 23-year-old who had bullied his kid-brother found himself in a borderline legal position.
The prosecution has asked the court to apply the adult penal code – given the seriousness of the charges. At the same time, prosecutor Overmeer struggled with this decision. She lamented that St. Maarten does not have a juvenile penal code that does justice to minors, or to the seriousness of the crimes some of them commit.
At the same time, the adult penal code, when applied strictly, comes down to hard on young people who stand in front of a judge for the first time in their life. They have to serve prison sentences in Pointe Blanche, where they are among adult criminals – not the ideal educational environment for youngsters who need guidance and correction to give them at least another shot at a decent and normal life.
St. Maarten does not have a juvenile facility for these youngsters. The responsibility for this situation rests on the shoulders of the government.
There is more to report in this field, for instance about the lack of prison cells. If the court applies the law to the latter it will have to deal with the following situation.
Suspects in preventive custody are allowed to spend at most ten days in a police cell. On the eleventh day they have to be transported to the House of Detention. Since that facility is filled to capacity, it is not possible to maintain the law – and the rights of suspects – in this respect.
In the past, judges have ruled more than once as follows: “If you are not in Pointe Blanche by noon on Friday, I order your release.”
That is what the court ought to do, but that would lead to an undesirable situation, and the fact that criminals would get back on the streets in no-time is only part of the problem. It would also lead to reduced motivation in the police force and probably also at the office of the public prosecutor.
What is the point of investigating crimes and arresting suspects if there are no decent facilities to lock these people up? Currently, the police force is quite successful in solving burglaries due to the improvements at its forensics department.
But what is giving criminals back their freedom before they have even been to trail going to do to the confidence the population must have in the country’s law enforcement agencies? It will dwindle as well.
The responsibility for all this rests, as we stated before, with the government and with the parliament. When the government does not act, or not act fast enough, the parliament has the option to table an initiative to make that government move.
For the time being however, suspects seem to be condemned to spend incredible long stretches in a police cell. That will result again in huge sentence reductions based on the rule of thumb that one week spent too long in a police cell will entitle a defendant to one month sentence reduction.
In the end, the whole system puts criminals back on the streets way too fast. Our politicians ought to be happy that the court is almost bending over backwards to keep people who deserve to be behind bars where they belong. But this stressed out system does not inspire politicians to take initiatives to improve the situation.
Of course there is a lot of talk about these improvements, but results don’t lie. And as long as they are not there, suspects will suffer in police cells and the prison system will remain under more pressure than it is able to withstand in the long run.

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