A slap on the wrist

IT IS DEEPLY regrettable that the State will be unable to seek any redress in the matter of the handing down last May by a magistrate of a slap on the wrist – in the form of a $17,000 fine – by way of sentence on a young man for the possession of 3.9 kilos of cocaine worth $1.56 million. Having received a report from the police prosecutor in the case, consulted with acting Deputy Commissioner of Police Harold Phillip, and reviewed the law, Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard’s hands were tied.

“Because of how the law is constructed, it does not appear the State has a right to appeal this sentence in a summary matter,” the DPP said in an interview with Newsday on Wednesday. “The DPP had nothing to do in this matter. The DPP’s office only got a report after the matter was dealt with.”

There are reasons why judicial officers are given a degree of discretion when handing down sentences. Often, they hear evidence firsthand and are ultimately in charge of the management of their courtrooms. At the same time, these officers serve a larger system and there are clear public policy reasons why sentences should be consistent. There is a need to ensure penalties match the gravity of the crime.

This case has raised several issues which call for a review. While guidelines were issued by the DPP’s office in 2005 giving police prosecutors custody of summary drug trials for volumes below five kilograms, the time has come for these guidelines to be reassessed. What should be the main factor in determining who takes custody of a case? Should it be quantum of drugs? Or should it be the drug’s estimated street value? Given the difficulties in assessing the latter in a timely manner, it is understandable why the simpler rubric of quantum has been such an overriding factor.

But if anything is demonstrated by last May’s case it is the fact that very serious charges can slip the net of this system. The DPP’s office is already overburdened, understaffed and lacking crucial resources such as office space. As such, the arrangement in which police prosecutors take on more duties for less serious cases is understandable.

At the same time, when things go wrong it is the entire criminal justice system that suffers damage. The DPP’s office still has a stake and, as such, it may be the case that it – or some other appropriate agency – should provide auditing of police prosecutors so as to ensure standards are being maintained. Daily, magistrates are required by law to hand down sentences and to make rulings. Sometimes they are asked to do so without the full facts. In those cases, decisions can be deferred pending a fuller picture.

With huge backlogs and limited time, there is pressure on officials to dispatch matters and not look back. But we must be careful to not throw out justice in the rush.


"A slap on the wrist"

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