Chuck promises new sentencing legislation soon

Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck says that a number of responses to the legal issues regarding sentencing are to be raised when he tables a new Rights of Appeal Bill in Parliament soon.

Chuck said that plea negotiation issues will also have to be dealt with under that Bill, creating the opportunity for Parliament to take a much closer look at legislation affecting sentencing, by giving more prominence to the use of victim impact statements and social enquiry reports, to guide the judgement in these.

“As we go forward, I will be emphasising the needs for both sides (prosecution and defence) to make presentations to the court, before sentencing is imposed,” he told the Jamaica Observer on Friday.

“There is no doubt that we need to look at sentencing policy and the extent to which it can respect public sentiment, because when a sentence is being imposed the judge takes that into consideration. But, oftentime the public is not aware of the underlying factors which may cause the judge to impose a less than normal sentence, and it may well be that it is due to matters that are revealed in a social enquiry report,” the minister stated.

“Sentencing is a complex matter and it is easy to criticise the judges or the sentencing policy, but to my knowledge the judges are very concerned about it as well. They have been discussing it, they have had many seminars on sentencing guidelines,” he noted.

However, Chuck said that if when persons are found guilty there is an opportunity for the defence and the prosecution to make presentations, obviously, there would be less appeals against sentences. In terms of that, he is insisting that both victim impact statements and the social enquiry reports should be used more often by lawyers, with the statement being made part of the report.

Chuck made the statement following several days of disputes over sentencing policies. He had earlier responded in Parliament to points made by some of his fellow MPs who were chorusing the need for removal of a mandatory limit on reducing sentences which turned out to be an upper limit.

The issue was ignited by a presentation from Government MP Kerensia Morrison (St Catherine North Eastern), who suggested that the “automatic” 50 per cent reduction in sentences for persons who plead guilty should be removed. She was speaking after a statement made by Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia “Babsy” Grange on the death of Khanice Jackson .

The body of the 20-year-old accounting clerk was found last Friday on the Dyke Road in Portmore, St Catherine, where she lived.

Morrison said that even if the court agrees to a reduced a sentence, it must reflect the nature and severity of the offence.

However, she appeared to have misread the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act under which the current plea bargaining measures are effeted, when she told the House: “The law needs to serve as a deterrent. It cannot be that…It cannot be that you murder someone, you kill someone and its automatic 50 per cent of the sentence because of a guilty plea.”

Agreeing with the flood of pleas for amendment to the legislation, Chuck informed the members that the 50 per cent was not automatic, although even the judges seem to be interpreting the clause as an automatic right as well.

“I am not using the amendment, but one gets the impression that they feel almost bound by the amendments (to the Criminal Justice Act) for one reason or the other and I have heard judges say it is the law,” he said on Tuesday.

Since then, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Lewellyn has said that the Criminal Justice Act and the Plea Negotiations Act have “appropriate” positions to accommodate a good balancing of the factors contained in the legislation to allow the judge to maintain discretion.

She said that judges were not even mandated to take any discount into consideration, when making their sentencing decisions. She also suggested that the parliamentarians who criticised the process on Tuesday, needed “some more sensitising and drilling down” in terms of the provisions of the law they were discussing.

She also noted that Section 22 of the Act made quite clear the need to decide regarding murders, that if in respect of looking at the reduction, the sentence would have seemed so disproportionate to the seriousness of the offence, or inappropriate in the case of the defendant, that it would “shock the public conscience”.

“Sentencing is not only for deterrence…it is to deal with retribution, deterrence, preventative and rehabilitative considerations,” she stated.

Llewellyn assured the parliamentarians that the Acts together have all the provisions which give both the defence, the prosecution and the judge sufficient leeway to make sure that the public interest is always “properly protected”.

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