A question of compassion

There is a United States-based television show called ‘Caught in Providence’, which is filmed in the courtroom of Justice Frank Caprio in Providence, Rhode Island. It is a local television show, meaning it is not on any of the major US networks that also offer international coverage. However, it has captured global attention because many clips from Judge Caprio’s courtroom have been posted on YouTube, linked to Facebook and other social media platforms and have gone viral. And the reason this has happened is because of Judge Caprio’s courtroom manner, in which he tempers justice with mercy and sometimes a bit of humour when the situation warrants it.

It should be noted though that he mainly deals with defendants who have been charged with committing minor traffic offences. It is also worth mentioning, that according to part of his biography posted online, the 80-year-old courtroom veteran is the son of an Italian immigrant. He has been practising law since 1965 and is currently the chief municipal judge in Providence. And although it is a television show, the cases he adjudicates are real.

In Guyana, there is a different court structure and the kind of minor cases Judge Caprio presides over would be heard by a magistrate, the majority of whom take themselves way too seriously. Local magistrates pay a lot of attention, too much in fact, to the attire of persons attending court, including stipulating what colours can and cannot be worn in the courtroom. Even defendants, who sometimes do not have a choice as to what they can wear, are subject to obeying these rules, which often also demand gender identity concurrence based on the magistrate’s narrow vision. More often than not, this is determined by the magistrate’s tolerance or lack of it, coloured by the magistrate’s religious practices.

For the record, nothing written here is with intent to advocate that the law not be followed when crimes are committed. Nor is this a call to the local judiciary to copycat what happens in any other jurisdiction. Comparisons are what are being made, with special reference to the current local situation.

Sentencing, though guidelines are provided, is usually the magistrate’s or the judge’s call. Their determination as to a whether a sentence will be custodial or not, or at the maximum or lower end of the guideline, one assumes, is based on what they glean from the evidence presented to them, including the accused’s defence as well as his or her demeanour in court.

And it is because of these things that the average layperson often questions sentencing decisions that more often than not, make local magistrates appear robotic. There have been a few exceptions, albeit just a handful.

Often, it is a question of compassion or the lack of it, coupled with what can only be described as a dearth of awareness. A recent case comes to mind in which a man of pensionable age was placed before the court charged with having 4.3 grammes (0.152 ounces) of cocaine in his possession for the purpose of trafficking. Cocaine trafficking is a serious charge, but the infinitesimal amount the accused had should make one wonder if it was really intended for sale. Furthermore, when he pleaded guilty, he said he had the drug for medicinal purposes. Finally, under questioning, he admitted to the court that he was an addict who had tried unsuccessfully to quit the habit.

Surely, such a person is not just a candidate for prison, yet he was jailed and fined. What’s more, this occurred after the July 9, Georgetown Prison fire and in circumstances where the overcrowding and lack of space to hold those inmates already inside had been ventilated ad nauseam. There is no drug rehabilitation facility at any of the country’s prisons, but there is ample evidence all around that drugs get into the prison where they are sold. There has to be something morally wrong with sending a confessed addict into such a situation. And yet, this has happened before and could possibly happen again.

While it is known that Guyana has no free drug rehabilitation centres where magistrates can mandate addicts in difficulty with the law to attend as part of their sentences, surely there is something else that can be done to ensure that following the letter of the law does not add to Guyana’s societal dysfunctions.

It would appear that in sentencing, some magistrates appear to believe that what they do can be taken in the abstract. If that is indeed the case it needs to be addressed because what happens at the end of court cases affects not just the person charged and found guilty or not, but the wider society and several of its systems.

One wonders what are the topics discussed at magisterial workshops and meetings and why it is that none of this country’s legal eagles have found a way to address these issues so that justice is served with an injection of compassion.

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