AG disturbed at Chancellor's revelation By Abigail Butler
Guyana Chronicle
March 12, 2002

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ATTORNEY General, Mr. Doodnauth Singh is disturbed by Chancellor Desiree Bernard's revelation that persons charged have been on remand for years before standing trial.

Ms. Bernard Saturday expressed concern about the large number of prisoners on remand at the Georgetown Prison and opined that that might have motivated the recent jailbreak.

She told a Magistrates' Conference at the Hotel Tower in Georgetown she had received an interim report from the committee that she established to look into the criminal justice system, which reveals that of the 831 prisoners at the Georgetown Prison, at least 41% are on remand.

"That is a staggering revelation and it means that nearly half of the prisoners of the Georgetown Prison are on remand without trial and I could think of nothing more staggering in the administration of justice than that", she had stated.

The Attorney General yesterday said that as the Minister of Justice he would wish the situation be addressed but noted that it has to do with a number of factors. These include an adequate number of magistrates, having the prosecution prepared to commence and continue hearings, and having cooperation among defence counsel.

He said that while he was in practice he always tried to ensure that such situations did not occur and in some instances had to move the Court to hear matters or have them dismissed.

He noted that in some countries there are preliminary inquiries where essential witnesses are heard to determine whether a case is made out or not. Unfortunately, he said there is not such a system here and full hearings involving all the witnesses are required.

"That is the difficulty we have and I know that there have been various suggestions and recommendations that there can be some sort of abridgement of the system that we have at the moment, that instead of having a full hearing, there could be a partial hearing...", he said.

In terms of introducing community services as an alternative to imprisonment for persons guilty of petty/minor offences, he said there is no provision at the moment for this.

He noted that the committee Chancellor Bernard has appointed to deal with the criminal justice system would have to make recommendations, which he said the Government would enact to ensure magistrates have the power for community service sentencing.

He said that once the recommendation comes to his Chamber, it should be operational in a very short time.

The Chancellor had also noted that magistrates should take the blame for the recent jailbreak since most of the escapees were persons awaiting trial as she urged them to avoid having a backlog of remand cases.

One Prison Officer was killed and another is in critical condition at the Georgetown Hospital following the Mash Day jailbreak.

The Chancellor had expressed alarm at persons being remanded for about four years before being brought to trial. She said she intended to get together with the Chief Justice to examine the matter.

" has touched me deeply and I think we need to do something about it immediately."

Justice Singh, who was at the conference, yesterday acknowledged that the problem with remand is very serious and was a challenging one for the magistracy.

He, however, observed that many prisoners on remand are also awaiting trial in the High Court. " it is not only a phenomenon relating to the Magistrates Court but if you look at the list produced by the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) for hearing at the assizes, you would find a large number of persons are awaiting trial in the High Court."

He also noted that the prison should have the proper facilities and provide separate accommodation for prisoners on remand for major crimes as against those held for petty offences.

The Government has an obligation, without receiving recommendations from the judiciary, to take into account and create the requisite prison facilities as part of its governmental responsibilities, the Chief Justice said.

He was asked if the judiciary would or has made recommendations to the Government concerning extended prison facilities to cope with the large numbers of prisoners, especially those on remand, at the Georgetown Prison which officials said is posing a problem.

He noted that the Government is expected to have an understanding that out of the legal system in the adjudicative process, people would be sentenced to terms as provided for by law.

The Chancellor had recommended community service for petty crimes at the one-day conference, which Justice Singh said was later discussed by the magistrates. He yesterday noted that community service is a good alternative and one of the methods that could be employed to avoid terms of imprisonment.

He, however, noted that there are manpower problems with supervising others for community service.

He said when the question was raised, Director of Prisons, Mr. Dale Erskine and the Chief Magistrate undertook and did provide a breakdown of the offences for which community service could be ideally suited. He, however, noted that those were not prevalent offences.

"...the offences for which community service could be imposed were not offences which people were coming before the court with. They were coming with other serious offences", Justice Singh said.

As opposed to community service, he said a paper presented by Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards made orders for suspended sentencing so that a person, if found guilty and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, could have the term suspended and be placed on probation for good behaviour.

Noting that the conference was a success, he explained that two papers were presented, one dealing with sentencing, which was presented by Justice Cummings-Edwards. The other dealt with pre-trial and the forfeiture of conveyance in relation to narcotics trials and was presented by Justice of Appeal, Mr. Ian Chang.

Justice Singh said both papers were scholarly and of an exceptionally high standard.

There were also some observations on the magistracy and Acting Chief Magistrate, Ms. Juliet Holder-Allen, presented these.

The meeting, described by the Chief Justice as a programme for judicial education, also discussed the draft judicial code of conduct and the magistrates were given an opportunity to make submissions and comments.

He said the programme was intended to awaken in the magistrates a greater understanding of the system - in the case of the first paper, the principles and objectives of sentencing and to focus their minds on an informal sentencing policy.

He said there is no particular piece of legislation that imposes fixed penalties but that a minimum and maximum penalty is applied to cases, which would be differently imposed by the magistrates. A custodial or monetary sentence could be imposed but it is left to the magistrate's discretion on how long the term of imprisonment should be, he said.

He added that the Guyana Human Rights Association had submitted a list of issues it wished the magistrates to consider and those were circulated to the magistrates who are expected to submit their views to the Chief Magistrate for onward transmission to the GHRA.

The conference was the first under Justice Singh's term and he yesterday said he hoped such sessions would be held twice a year. "It was a success and I am very pleased with the programme", he said.

He also thanked Registrar, Ms. Sita Ramlall for her efforts in preparing the conference material and folder and in organising the physical layout of the conference.