Last month, during a Rotary-sponsored Peace Conference, Commissioner of Police Paul Rolle expressed his concerns about the growing numbers of cases, currently and backlogged, that are before the courts. Surprisingly, the backlog of cases, somewhere in the thousands, he admitted, had been outstanding since he was an inspector years ago. The backlog runs almost a decade long, if not longer.
The public interest demands that criminal justice be swift and sure. Additionally, the guilty should be punished while events are current in the minds of the public. Moreover, matters should be absolved as early as possible, consistent with a fair and impartial hearing.
In the interests of justice, cases should be heard expeditiously, before the memory of a witness fades, or worse, the witness passes away, or they no longer have the desire to participate in the proceedings. This brings to light issues which affect not only the witness but also the defendant, who must answer to charges which have lingered for ages. A person being charged having to wait years to have their day in court is not fair to the victims of crimes or the alleged perpetrator. The victim has a grievance and the life and liberty of the accused is at stake. The scales of justice must be balanced!
Some people have been so negatively impacted by pending charges, that they are unable to find or maintain employment, due to electronic monitoring devices or curfew restrictions. Some are not in a position to afford bail and they remain in jail for years while they await trial. Individuals are on remand for periods longer than what the sentence guidelines for the charges would attract.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently reported that The Bahamas has the highest rate of imprisonment in the Caribbean region. The Bahamas Department of Correctional Services, formerly known as Her Majesty’s Prison and referred to as “Fox Hell” by many past and present inmates, was found to be overpopulated by 173 percent.
The prison, originally built to house 1,000 inmates, held 2,558 inmates as of June 30, 2019. In contravention of United Nations and Amnesty International recommendations and treaties, of which The Bahamas is a signatory, the prison houses juveniles, some as young as sixteen years old, in maximum security sections with convicted adult offenders, while they await trial. The remand center is plagued with overcrowding. This overcrowding needs to be fixed. It adds to the litany of problems that are facing the correctional system.
A cell originally built for two men now houses as much as 20 men, with no running water or toilet facilities. Most time, there are at least 10 men sleeping on the floor, which in this current pandemic is a cause of dire health concerns, not only for inmates but for the civil servants who work within the prison system. Current reports indicate that groups most affected by COVID-19 infections are those of the armed forces, including prison officers and police officers – even more than frontline healthcare workers who are dealing with COVID-19 patients daily. This situation is a travesty. We must accept the saying “justice delayed is justice denied”.
The IDB estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of the offenders housed in prison are for non-violent drug offenses. Studies indicate that the cost of housing just one inmate is $18,000 per year to the Bahamian taxpayer. Multiply this figure by the current prison population of at least 2,558 inmates and the cost to the taxpayer is a whopping $46,044,000 per year! This problem did not happen overnight, as successive administrations have not been successful in dealing with the overcrowding of the prison and the backlog of cases. Judicial reform is so necessary that all delay must be seen as inappropriate and avoidable.
Yes, more courts have been built and more judges have been added, however, it’s obvious they have been unable to make a dent in the growing number of criminal matters.
Perhaps it’s time to tap into all of those talented lawyers we have, appoint them as judges and magistrates and let them try to clear up this mess we call a justice system. Additionally, the time has come to consider alternative punishment other than imprisonment. Other countries have implemented punitive measures such as heavy fines, community service and probation with conditions.
It is time to stop this ridiculous system of parading people in handcuffs and ankle chains publicly, as it’s degrading to those who haven’t been found guilty but yet are made to endure the humiliation of doing the “Bank Lane shuffle”, effectively putting guilt in the minds of those watching, including possible jurors.
Recently, two former Parliamentarians were hauled before the courts shackled and paraded like they were mass murderers, only later to be found not guilty, and now the government is facing millions of dollars in lawsuits that the taxpayers will have to foot the cost of. The longer it goes on, the more we have to pay.
It seems that the government needs to focus on the prevention of crime and the root causes of crime. We have to nip this anti-social issue as it has become a problem for all of us. Unfortunately, the cow is out the gate and we are struggling to close it.
We in the Bahamian community are deeply saddened by the recent killings, including children caught in the crossfire. This is unacceptable and our sympathies and heartfelt condolences go out to their families and loved ones. Collectively we must take and share responsibility for protecting the health, safety and welfare of all citizens, especially our most vulnerable.
Yes, the police need equipment to handle this scourge, but more importantly, programs that help to rehabilitate those who have spent time in prison to start a new life need to be implemented. If not, like many of their brethren, they will end up back in Fox Hill prison and the cycle of violence and crime will continue. When an individual leaves prison, he or she should be able to lead a productive life and should have learned skills to help him or her become an asset to society.
We all make mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. The life of our nation needs a transformation back to that of peace and tranquility.
We need to support all efforts regarding peace building and conflict prevention. In order to attract foreign investors, we must bring this social epidemic to an end. We can’t continue to hope that this problem will disappear.
• William Wong is a two-term president of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Confederation, two-term president of the Bahamas Real Estate Association and a partner at Darville-Wong Realty. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.