Unacceptable detention conditions give teenaged burglar his freedom

POSTED: 08/18/14 5:16 PM

St. Maarten – A 17-year-old boy regained his freedom yesterday, after the Court in First Instance sentenced him to the 130 days of imprisonment he had already served for two attempted burglaries at a timeshare resort. The prosecution demanded 20 months of imprisonment, plus the execution of 12 months for two earlier conditional convictions.

At the request of the boy’s attorney Geert Hatzmann, Judge Koos van de Ven and prosecutor Karola van Nie inspected the boy’s detention circumstances at the police station on Tuesday. The results from that inspection did it for the troubled young defendant – the court ruled these conditions unacceptable.

The boy was caught red-handed on March 23 of this year and since that time he was in pretrial detention in a cell at the police station. He was alone in a cell measuring 2.5 by 4.5 meters. The cell has no windows, so there is no direct daylight. A window at the end of a corridor provides some indirect light, but it is positioned at a 90-degree angle from the cell. Judge van de Ven said that the atmosphere in cell was hot and stifling.

Under the detention regime, the young defendant was aired twice a day for one hour, meaning that most of his days he spent 22 hours alone in his cell. An inspection of the day program the facility is supposed to provide shows that out of the 61 days in June and July, the youngster did not get his day program during 26 days.

Prosecutor Van Nie said that the court had never before considered detention conditions when it sentenced young defendants to unconditional prison time. “Others simply received an unconditional sentence,” she said.

The prosecutor said that the objective is to keep young defendants locked up as shortly as possible, and that this particular defendant had been allowed to do his homework outside his cell. Van Nie pointed out that the young man was in the care of trained prison guards and that the day program had been offered as much as possible.

“Often times this defendant refused to come out of his cell for airing and on other occasions he wanted to return to his cell before the hour was over. On several occasions, he did not want to participate in the day program. The Judge of Instruction has dismissed the defense argument that the detention conditions are reason to suspend him several times.”

The prosecutor told the court that the youth detention center in Cay Bay will be ready in the fall. She demanded 20 months imprisonment and the execution of about half of two earlier conditional sentences – for a total of 12 months.

Attorney Hatzmann said that his client needs structure in his life and called the way the prosecution approached the case rather cynical. ‘Usually these defendants are sent home after a couple of weeks with some serious community service, but my client has been for months in a cell that has feces on the walls. That is quite something.”

Hatzmann said that previously, the court would count one week in a police cell as one month of imprisonment, and he asked Judge Van de Ven to apply this discount on the sentence. He asked the court to sentence the boy to a sentence equal to the time he had already served and to reject the demand to execute the earlier sentences.

Judge Van de Ven did not need long to mull over his decision. “There is proof for the charges against you,” he told the boy. “I have seen you too often in too short a time. You are released and a couple of days later things go wrong again. Detention does not impress you much, but it is possible that you are unable to change this attitude on your own.”

The judge took into account however that the boy is a minor, that he has slightly diminished mental capabilities and that, according to a report by a youth psychiatrist, he needs at least intensive coaching.

The judge furthermore referred to a report from the CPT – the European anti-torture committee – that states that a lengthy stay in police cells in Philipsburg is unacceptable.

“The hygiene in the police cells is lacking, you do not get your day program every day and you are only aired twice a day. You have been in this cell for almost five months now and I find it unacceptable to leave you there any longer under these circumstances.”

The judge sentenced the boy to 130 days – time he has already served – and ordered his immediate release. He told the boy however that he is still on probation and that he has to report to the Court of Guardianship for counseling. Prosecution and defense abstained from appealing the court’s ruling.

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