THE STATE’S multifaceted move to attenuate the pressure on the prison system is not only welcomed, it presents a window of opportunity to implement overdue reforms within the criminal justice system.
The multi-pronged approach outlined Thursday by Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi has the potential to fulfil three key objectives.
Firstly, it can reduce the potential burden on the public health system posed by the country’s 3,959 prisoners being housed at crowded penal facilities.
Secondly, it will improve the national security outlook by reducing the likelihood of further disruptive activity, thereby allowing the State to focus on truly pressing matters.
And thirdly, it may well usher in trial measures which have the potential to jump-start more lasting reform.
The measures outlined by the AG involve several intricate elements and discussions, all revolving around people on remand and people who are already convicted. People who have been granted bail already under the Bail Act but who have been unable to meet bail conditions (whether they could not afford to or there was some other hindrance) will be considered for relief.
The courts, presided over by judicial officers who have the sole discretion to handle bail, will be petitioned to examine cases afresh, with input from stakeholders such as the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
In relation to people already convicted, the Mercy Committee, which advises President’s House in the exercise of pardon, will be convened. If applicable, input from the victim will be sought, but the focus is not on serious crimes and certainly not the 1,115 people on murder charges/death row. Instead, the policy has in its sight cases involving non-violent minor offences, such as people on marijuana charges, obscene language charges, or trivial matters. About 149 such individuals are on remand awaiting trial, while 239 have been sentenced. All could soon be granted reprieve.
Additionally, the Attorney General disclosed a fourth measure which would see the introduction, at long last, of electronic monitoring, which would allow people to be under arrest in their homes. In relation to this measure, 250 units are available for use.
These measures, which should be implemented with haste, must be a first step. In its discussions with stakeholders, further measures should be examined.
For example, we are of the view that people on bailable offences should, as a matter of judicial policy, be considered for release unless some compelling reason for incarceration exists. Further, people who were due to be released within the current calendar year should, once on good behaviour, be considered for expedited release, subject to the same qualifications above.
It is ironic that the use of electronic tagging may finally be implemented in the current circumstances after being talked about for decades. Necessity, it seems, is truly the mother of invention.