N Touch
Thursday 22 August 2019
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758 and counting

NEARLY everyone agrees the criminal justice system is faltering. Even our top judge, Chief Justice Ivor Archie, thinks so. “We have a crisis,” Archie said on Tuesday, speaking at a special panel discussion held at the Hall of Justice to examine legislation to introduce judge-alone trials.

The Chief Justice’s assessment is borne out by the statistics.

According to figures given in the Senate by acting National Security Minister Edmund Dillon, 758 people are awaiting trial for murder even after being committed to stand trial in the magistrate’s court. That’s 758 people who are presumed innocent until proven guilty languishing in jail.

And that’s also 758 families, innumerable friends and countless relatives whose lives are upended and left in limbo. As are the lives of the families of the victims.

The backlog is worse when we consider the high murder rate.

According to some estimates, TT now ranks eleventh in the world when it comes to murders per capita. At various stages over the last two decades, we have been in the top 10. Not only is the system already overburdened, but it’s also not keeping up. The longer the State fails to eradicate the backlog, the worse the problem is likely to become.

By some estimates, taxpayers have been paying billions to house prisoners over the years. The costs are only set to get higher as time goes by. It is only a matter of time before some enterprising lawyer figures out a way to sue the State for the exorbitant delays, possibly using the device of habeas corpus or even bringing a Constitutional lawsuit that looks at the bigger, fouler picture. What will the State’s defence be then?

People on the street all agree the State needs to find novel ways of dealing with this situation. The legislation abolishing the preliminary inquiry was one step.

The introduction of judge-alone trials is another. Judge-alone trials have been tried and tested in many jurisdictions, including the Cayman Islands and Northern Ireland. In some cases, standards have improved. But legal reform alone will not solve the problem.

The State should also consider the convening of special courts specifically to deal with the backlog. The Caribbean Court of Justice, which is literally on our doorstep, is also a tremendous untapped resource.

steps have been taken to bolster the complement, there is also a need for more courts and more judicial staff.

Meanwhile, prisons are overcrowded and deplorable.

It’s an open secret conditions in jail are below par and security arrangements need strengthening.

We must find a way to ensure prisoners are treated compassionately and their human rights respected, while also safeguarding the rest of us.

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