Criminal justice

The criminal justice system has three major components: law enforcement (mainly the police), the courts or legal system and the penal system (the prisons).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to comprehend that all three arms of the criminal justice system in Guyana are broken to varying extents, and that the delivery of justice as a consequence is ineffective and has not secured the trust of the general population.

Recently the law enforcement arm came under scrutiny for the shooting deaths of three men at the Georgetown seawall who allegedly were up to no good and shot at the policemen when called upon to stop. The police account of the incident left much to be desired, and even the Police Commissioner seemed to be very assertive in his officers’ defence in responding to questions from the news media. The result of all this is that the general public is divided because of the lack of a unifying thread in the official narrative of what transpired. As questions continue to pile up President Granger himself has said that he has asked the Commissioner to investigate the matter. However, since the Commissioner has already pronounced quite forcefully in support of the police action on the matter, it is unclear how such an investigation will gain the public trust.

One reaction to the shooting from a fairly large bloc of public opinion is to accept the official accounts unquestioningly, as they are battle worn from the seemingly unending crime spree. However, this support for the police does nothing to enhance the professionalism of the Force or provide evidence of its adherence to standard operating procedures; it is simply a reflection of a view that the persons shot got their just deserts – as in “live by the sword, die by the sword.” Of course, the relatives of the deceased and those who fear police excesses where they become judge, jury and executioner hold a much different perspective on the matter. For them an impartial professional investigation undertaken by independent qualified individuals who are not connected to the Police Force is the only way to proceed.

This schism in the way that the essentially law-abiding public views matters relating to crime is a deep one that has been allowed to grow and become entrenched over many years. The Guyana Police Force has only displayed fleeting investigative capacity over the last few decades, and their ability to prosecute matters in the court system is very limited to non-existent. Many times police personnel have to go up against highly qualified, highly paid and resourceful attorneys-at-law resulting in relatively few successful prosecutions, even when the criminal offender is “known to the police.” As mentioned earlier, when such persons are subsequently shot and killed by the police, sections of the public often show relief rather than question the police accounts of what happened, although there has always been a vocal minority which does raise queries about the official explanations of the Force.

But outside of the known failings of the GPF wherein even some of their best ranks and officers have been implicated in criminal acts, there must be a core of basically good ranks and officers who must feel completely betrayed by the system themselves. Morale in the force must be severely damaged whenever cases which they have investigated and where they have laid charges are not successfully prosecuted in the courts.

Successive governments have not done enough to boost the investigative and legal prosecuting capacities of the GPF. If anything, more emphasis has been placed on the more combat type of policing and it should come as no surprise that the overarching image of the Guyana Police is that of a pick-up filled with policemen armed to the teeth with automatic guns and assault rifles. The saying that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem is seen as a nail is applicable here.

The court system itself is fraught with challenges both for the police prosecuting cases and the defendant being prosecuted. In an antiquated court system where judges functioning as scribes laboriously pen a record of what is said while it is being said, it is no surprise that there has been an incredible backlog of cases for as far back as anyone can remember. Records vanish, witnesses leave the jurisdiction and defendants languish on remand as years go by before a particular matter can be heard, in the process no doubt inflicting damage on the psyche of victims and their families, as well as alleged perpetrators and their families. All this festering lack of closure can present a fertile environment for the breeding of future criminals and the fostering of anti-social behaviour by youths who have effectively been betrayed by a society unable to arrest institutional dysfunction in the criminal justice system.

This brings us to contemplate whether our prison system can ever be defined as a “corrections institution” as it currently operates. The conditions present in our jails are likely in violation of the Standard Treatment of Prisoners, and the term ‘prisoners’ rights’ possibly is not entrenched in the vocabulary of the managers of the system.

Again, a crime-weary public shows no sympathy for inmates, and even our politicians have uttered carelessly dismissive words regarding conditions in our prisons. In this there is a fundamental understanding that is missing: that as our society becomes increasingly lawless in how we deal with lawbreakers, we unwittingly create an unending and growing supply of criminals in our midst. Lawlessness breeds lawlessness.

Instead, our response should be as Michelle Obama so famously said: “When they go low, we go high.” That is, we must never abandon our humanity even in the face of lawlessness and violent criminality, although our focused, intelligence based, civilized response must also be swift, sharp and have the full force of the law.

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