A justice system gone wrong

Kaieteur News
December 10, 2006

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Ever since the courts handed down a sentence of four years and nine months to Rhonda Gomes for possession of cocaine, machine guns, tons of ammunition and hand grenades, tongues have been wagging in Guyana. People feel that the prevalence of gun crimes in the country should have at least mandated a much greater sentence for the possession of arms and ammunition.

And indeed those sentiments seem to have weight when one looks at the amount of emphasis the police place on the discovery of these weapons, the race to exhibit the arms cache discovery, and the prominence they display whenever they detail the number of guns they recover from the streets.

Not so long ago, the police killed people in possession of illegal guns and one can readily recall the slaying of people like Ryan Pendleton and his colleague, the two men killed at Industry, even as they were heading to the city for some unknown reason and of course, people like Shawn Browne and Dale Moore.

One may argue that some of these killed had criminal records or were wanted but there were others not known to the public but who happened to have guns and ammunition in their possession and died for that reason and that reason alone. More recently, when Oliver Hinckson and Gibson were charged with arms possession, none other than President Bharrat Jagdeo expressed his displeasure when the courts granted bail to them, particularly Hinckson. President Jagdeo was incensed. Then Home Affairs Minister, Clement Rohee announced that the government would be visiting the legislation as these relate to gun crimes because he felt that those who appear before the courts get off with sentences that do not appear to match the crime.

But when Magistrate Oniege Walrond-Allicock sentenced Gomes on the multiplicity of charges, she made it clear that the penalty for the possession of arms and ammunition is a fine. Indeed, rarely do people who get held with guns serve a custodial sentence. Yet one is forced to reconcile the fact that a man who stole a rear view mirror from a car got three years in jail, another who stole some cloth from his employer got a lengthy jail term and someone who shoplifted a jar of coffee ended up going to jail for six months.

Something must be drastically wrong with the justice system for sentences to vary to such an extent. Perhaps the fact that guns were unheard of in the possession of the ordinary man meant that the law never paid such attention to the possibility that one day just about any criminal-minded person would have taken possession of a firearm.

Every country needs to revisit its laws from time to time because with the passage of time, some laws become obsolete. For example, Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon agreed that this is the case with sentences that order a whipping. He also said that the use of the cat-o-nine tails was removed from the statutes given the emotive issue of slavery and the use of that particular tool of punishment.

Similarly, the statutes still forbid women from appearing in men's apparel but which woman is ever charged for wearing pants and other like clothing?

When the government drafted and passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act, the fines were substantial. They represented more than three months' salary for a middle level public servant and a whole lot more for the average weekly-paid worker.

Today, those fines are nothing but a freck; ‘a raise' or ‘change' for most Guyanese. The laws have not been amended, however, so the courts continue to apply those fines which have become meaningless. What is interesting is that the same legislation took inflation into consideration and also recommended that the courts could charge a fine of three times the value of the drug. For some strange reason, few magistrates ever imposed this penalty. The one who sought to do this on a consistent basis is no longer on the bench, having failed to secure the renewal of her contract.

It is the same with so many other penalties and indeed it is time that the State reviews the various legislations. Failing that, many more criminal minded people would not hesitate to acquire handguns, knowing that the penalty does not even amount to a slap on the wrist.