An encouraging trend Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
January 20, 2004

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AN enlightened approach to persons charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana was demonstrated by Acting Chief Magistrate, Juliet Holder-Allen, when she suspended jail sentences in favour of community service.

In the case of James Meredith, who was charged with having two grams of cannabis savita in his possession for the purpose of trafficking, the Acting Chief Magistrate fined him $5,000 and ordered him to do 50 hours of community service.

In the case of Anthony Bowen, charged with having three grams of cannabis, his one-year prison sentence was suspended and he was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and, like the other, was fined $5,000.

We hope this trend continues, as our prison population is already severely overcrowded.

It does little good to sentence persons to prison for minor convictions. It is hard to forget the unfortunate death of one prisoner by another, the former being on remand for a relatively minor crime - that of cruelty to an animal.

Our overcrowded prisons, like many prisons throughout the world, often breed some serious criminals and seem to do little to curb crime.

Statistics in the USA, for example, show that the number of prisoners climbed from 70 percent (100,000) citizens in 1966 to 136 percent (100,000) in 1998 while Italy, by comparison, had 57 percent (100,000) in jail in 1990, down from 79 percent (100,000) in 1960. Japan had halved its imprisonment rate over the same period, from 66 percent (100,000) to 32.

This shows that over-incarceration does not reduce crime, particularly when penal welfare and rehabilitation seem to have gotten lost in most prisons, including our own.

In California, in a recent referendum, a new state law was enacted requiring treatment rather than prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

We passed a law a few years ago making it possible to do exactly what the Acting Chief Magistrate is doing, removing jail sentences for minor charges of possession of marijuana.

Our judicial system should seek to avoid jail sentences, wherever possible, for minor crimes and move toward the re-education of such persons and/or supervised community service.

Our prisons are bursting with a population it cannot properly sustain and it seems unlikely that, in the near future, there will be sufficient funds available for building a more modern structure with so many other needs in our society.

With this as a reality, it would be wiser not to increase our prison population unnecessarily. We should keep our prisons for protecting society from violent convicts.