Justice system missing opportunity to apply alternative sentences that reflect understanding of young criminals

Dear Editor,

Overcrowding and the high cost of maintaining jails and prisons have come together to force the criminal justice system to seek new forms of  sentencing for non -violent offenders. To a large extent, in Guyana alternative sentencing has expressed itself in the form of  criminals being sent to work for a specific period at a government agency or a local non -government organization. I doubt if the effectiveness of this approach has been evaluated. Indeed I am not sure that this  form of sentencing is given serious thought. Not sure that its capacity for satisfying broader social objectives is appreciated or pursued.

Based upon present usage, which alternative sentencing we engage in, suggests the likelihood of  leading to a reduction in crime, reform of offenders or leading to restorative justice? Are convicted persons who are unemployed attached to an agency at which they might learn a skill, or which provides the possibility of final employment?  Does the form  the alternative sentence take aim at offering convicted persons an opportunity to learn a specific life lesson that his/her crime suggest he/she needs? 

Years ago as a young man I read about a tribe in Africa and how it dealt with members who were guilty of committing the crime of abortion. According to the writer, women who were guilty of aborting were given a hut to live in, and the remains of the unborn child would be buried in the said hut. I suppose, for us today this would amount to psychological abuse, unpardonable cruelty. But it is not this aspect of this tribe’s  behaviour that concerns me here. What holds my interest was that the approach reveals a community determined to find an indigenous approach for responding to what it perceives as social problem.  A response that had relevance to the crime and which forced the offender to consider the fact that she had taken a life. In other words the sentence had relevance to the crime and one could see what its authors aimed at achieving, even if we consider the means unacceptable. Today, modern societies seems to be embracing this approach to alternative sentencing that was noted years ago in this African tribe.

Here in the USA  and in Ohio specifically, a judge made a young lady walk 30 miles  (to be completed within 48 hours) after having been found guilty of refusing to pay the taxi fare for a journey she undertook over the same distance (30 miles). The alternative was 30 days in in jail. In another case, in Cincinnati  another judge sentenced a young lady to 8 hours work in a stink dump or 90 days in jail. The young lady was found guilty of keeping her dog in a stinking environment.

It is this care to make alternative sentencing a teaching occasion – purposeful, that seems to be missing in the Guyana approach. It is as if  we are so focused on reducing overcrowding at prisons that considerations of making sentencing purposeful to the convicted, is never considered. I am not a supporter of marijuana being an illegal substance. But since it is in Guyana, why would we sentence a young man or woman to a prison term for having in his/her possession an unbelievably small amount that suggest it’s for personal use? What is redemptive about prisons? The truth is it seems we send them to prison merely to gratify our collective anger.

It seems to me that the justice system is missing a marvelous opportunity to be creative and  initiate sentences that reflect an understanding of our young criminals, and what would be most beneficial to their positive growth and development. By not seizing this marvelous opportunity we are missing an occasion to make a worthy impact on efforts at crime reduction.

 I understand President Granger has indicated  that the imprisoning of marijuana users will come to an end. Let us watch to see what alternative sentences our courts will apply.

Yours faithfully,

Claudius Prince

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