LIGHT PRISON SENTENCES ARE NOTHING BUT A SCANDAL


Our society places little value on human life.

The newspapers reported on November 17, 2009, that seven year prison sentences were imposed on two persons for manslaughter. Mahendra Singh lived in the same yard as his uncle, Ganesh Rai. He was drinking at Rai’s house. There was a mild altercation and Rai asked Singh to leave. Singh went to his house, got a cutlass and chopped his uncle to death. He was charged for murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

Roxanne Daniels was at the home of her male companion. His estranged wife paid a visit to the home not knowing that Ms. Daniels was there. A fight ensued and the wife was stabbed to death. Roxanne Daniels was charged with murder but found guilty of manslaughter. She was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

Sympathetic probation reports were read in court for both accused. They evoked sympathy. They had deprived childhoods. No reports appeared to have been read for the victims. We know nothing about their lives – whether they had parents or children and what pain and grief they suffered. They had no one to represent them in court, to speak up for them. Because no law requires this, the courts were deprived of the opportunity of developing a balanced approach to the interests of the accused as well as the victims. The result was extremely light sentences for the most serious of crimes. The victims were victimized twice.

This approach is not as pervasive as it used to be. The newspapers of November 24, 2009, had the smiling picture of XXXXX who was sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter, having pleaded guilty to killing his drinking companion who interceded when XXXXX began to beat his wife who had gone to the rumshop to get him having been drinking all day. While wanton killing should attract a sentence which ensures that the guilty actually spend no less than 15 years in prison, a 15 year prison sentence which means 12 years less remission for good behavior, is an improvement. The Judge should be commended.

The light sentences may have had little to do directly with the brutal chopping within the past few weeks of women by their spouses, no doubt intending to kill them, and of numerous other women in recent past. They may also have had to do nothing with the reckless driving and behavior of the two drivers which resulted in the deaths of seven people; or the killers wielding cutlasses. But it creates a view within the society that a brief respite in prison is all that attends violent crime. It would lead women abusers who had killed their spouses to expect to spend five years in prison, a small price for murder reduced to manslaughter if found guilty. Having only wounded them, they can expect a summary trial and, if guilty, between one and three years behind bars.

For serious driving offences resulting in death, multiple or otherwise, the guilty would have nothing to fear. The will get a tap on the wrists in the form of light prison sentences, if prison at all. With a good probation report, they may even escape prison. Light prison sentences are nothing but a scandal and the Government must do something to stop it – now. If not this rate crimes of violence are not going to see a reduction any time soon. Criminals are aware that if caught committing serious crimes of violence their sojourn in prison will be limited to a bearable term.

The Government bears a heavy responsibility in correcting this sad state of affairs. Conferences on crime are not going to reduce their incidence if it allows this situation to remain unaddressed. It requires immediate action to pass legislation to give victims their rightful place in the justice system by allowing them to give evidence under oath in relation to sentencing. This will enable judges to have a full picture of the harm which has been done by the guilty and the pain and distress which has been caused by the crime. It will lead to more balanced sentences taking into account all sides rather than only sympathetic probation reports.

Also judges must be given power to order that a guilty person who is sentenced to a term of imprisonment spend a minimum number of years in prison. This should be merely a start in restructuring our sentencing system.

 There must be a clear understanding of deterrence and rehabilitation and the relationship between the two. They are interdependent and a correct balance must be set between the two. Neither can succeed without the other. For rehabilitation to take place a prisoner must face the reality that he/she has received a sentence which hurts, that is to say, a sentence long enough to send a message to the prisoner and the public that deterrence is an objective in the length of sentence imposed. This by itself will encourage rehabilitation. I have written on this topic before and several ideas were put forward. I have revisited the issue here and will most likely revisit it again.

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