On the side of liberty
DELAY, delay, delay – that seems to be the overbearing and intractable theme within our justice system.
There is often a long delay before matters are detected, arrests made and charges laid. Then, there is another set of delay within legal proceedings, once commenced, involving legal manoeuvring by defence attorneys on the one hand and lack of readiness by prosecutors, police or otherwise, on the other. Indictments take years. Trials occur decades after the alleged offence. By the time a sentence is imposed, the “accused” has effectively already been convicted and served their term.
But while of late we have been hearing a great deal about the problems in the criminal justice system relating to the offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Chief Justice and the Ministry of the Attorney General, Monday’s ruling by High Court Justice Robin Mohammed shines a badly needed spotlight on an overlooked area of administrative malaise, an area that relates not to the stages of the system leading up to conviction, but rather after.
The judge, ruling in a constitutional case of vital importance, found unacceptable levels of delay when it comes to the review of prison terms. He found that prison authorities failed in their duty to do regular four-year reviews of individuals serving life sentences, individuals who may have been eligible for release.
“In the absence of sentence reviews it was reasonable to conclude that the continued detention of the applicants was based primarily on the backlog of sentence reviews which the prison had to conduct for a large number of prisoners,” said Justice Mohammed.
“It cannot be said that administrative delay is an appropriate reason or causal link to justify the continued deprivation of liberty of the applicants.”
Further, the judge noted that while in ordinary circumstances one might expect the Mercy Committee to be a useful conduit through which cases might be dealt with, the workings of that constitutional body are clogged and clouded and, as such, some prisoners have been “left in a continued state of limbo.”
We fully expect the State to weigh its options in this matter.
While prisoners should not be subject to neglect – and they already endure appalling physical conditions – a court of law has imposed a sentence on them and some may say that is the end of the matter.
In truth, sentencing must conform with rules, laws and practices. And these must apply equally and fairly to all and must be consistently applied over time.
Most importantly, they must be humane, regardless of the fact that these rules are meant to apply to convicts.
For either we, as a society, cherish liberty or we do not. Justice Mohammed’s ruling puts us squarely on the side of liberty.
"On the side of liberty"