Prison CoI report criticises lengthy sentences of judge

- urges swift adoption of sentencing recommendations in 2010 report

A High Court judge has been singled out in the Prison Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report for the lengthy sentences he has been handing down to persons convicted of murder in recent years.

“The Commission noted that one judge has adopted a seemingly personalized approach to sentencing which makes a mockery of the concept of sentencing policy. He is responsible over recent years for sentencing 13 offenders to a total of 1038 years in prison, an average sentence of 80 years,” the report which was handed over to President David Granger last month said.

According to the section of the report which deals with sentencing policy, the laws of Guyana do not support “this irresponsible approach to crime and punishment” that is being handed down by this particular judge.

The report said that were the judiciary rather than the Prison Service to be the one to bear the cost of this behaviour, “it would no doubt have been swiftly terminated.”

The judge was not named in the document but the only judge that has issued such lengthy sentences is Justice Navindra Singh.

According to the report, the sentencing policy section of its findings has drawn heavily on a detailed Report on the Development of Sentencing Guidelines for Judges and Magistrates, produced in 2010 under the Modernization of the Justice Administration System, titled the “Overarching Principles in Sentences and Reduction in Sentence for A Guilty Plea”.

It said that the Report sets out a comprehensive case for flexibility in sentencing policy in Guyana. Adoption of the recommendations contained in the Report should be treated as a matter of considerable urgency the commission posited adding that this is particularly appropriate since the major thrust of the Report is to highlight the range of sentencing options already available to the Guyanese courts.

The fact that the consultation process around the Report reportedly only started earlier this year with its distribution to judges and magistrates is a matter of concern to the Commission. It questioned why more concerted efforts to ensure its incorporation into everyday judicial culture have not been encouraged and monitored more vigorously.

The prison CoI report said that a particularly illuminating feature of the sentencing Report points out that in a number of key sentencing statutes, removal of discretion in favour of mandatory sentences, at both summary and indictable levels, is not absolute.

It was stated that all the statutes contain a provision to the effect that “in the interests of justice” mandatory sentences may be modified by the judge or magistrate. While not a satisfactory method of varying a statute, the concept goes to the heart of what all statutes intend, namely to do justice.

“In circumstances in which routine application of the statute would (cause  unusual hardship, not to mention cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, this concept provides a remedy”, the report said, adding that even in cases in which incarceration is mandatory existing Statutes provide for substantial discretion on the part of both judges and magistrates to impose alternative sentencing to imprisonment.

“Invoking such a concept to avoid adding to the generalized misery of over-crowding should see a rise in favour of non-custodial sentences such as fines, community services, suspension, and his or her own surety,” it said.

According to the report, in lieu of formal guidelines, judges and magistrates inevitably adopt an approach determined by their view of the seriousness of the offence.  “Seriousness in turn should be determined by two criteria, culpability and the harm caused,” it added.

The report said that in the interests of consistency, the assessment of culpability and harm must themselves be subjected by the sentence to a list of ‘aggravating’ and ‘mitigating’ features set out in the Overarching Principles in Sentencing section of the Report on the Development of Sentencing Guidelines for Judges and Magistrates.

“The court must first make an initial assessment of the seriousness of the offence, then go on to consider mitigating factors. ‘Prevalence of the offence’ in itself, is not to be considered separately but as a factor in the ‘seriousness’ assessment to avoid doubly penalizing the culprit,” the report said.

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