The Stabroek News of Thursday, April 18th, reported on the conviction of Daniel France for trafficking of 25 grammes of cannabis. Of course, conviction of drug offences is the law and it must be enforced.
France pleaded guilty to the charge of trafficking. He gave, in mitigation, the explanation that he had the cannabis in his possession as he had suffered a stroke and he boils the cannabis and drinks it to treat the ailment.
First point is that it appears that he was not represented by a lawyer; technically, he should have been instructed by the magistrate to change his plea to “not guilty” as he denied the trafficking charge as he claimed that the cannabis was for medical purposes. Now, trafficking and possession are two different offences. Possession is simply the act of possessing, and trafficking is the serious offence of selling or transporting drugs.
But that is not the issue I am raising. The penalty was three years in prison and a $30,000 fine. Now his defense was that the cannabis was for a medicinal purpose as he suffered a stroke. Did the magistrate seek any evidence from France that he had had a stroke? It is well established in the medical field that medicinal ‘cannabis sativa’ is used legally under control in the treatment of a wide range of ailments. The report gave no indication if the medicinal claim was explored, which could have had an influence on the charge of trafficking.
Did the magistrate establish if France was married and had children who were dependent on his working to support his family? A three-year sentence will have a devastating effect, not only on his life, but also on his family if he is the wage earner and for three years not able to take care of and is no longer providing an income for them.
My point is that 25 grammes are less than one ounce. The charge was trafficking, which is trading and with 25 grammes, it of course, is possible but not very likely for that small amount. So what evidence was presented by the prosecution of trafficking? Should not the charge have been the lesser charge of possession? What evidence was adduced that the more serious charge was appropriate? Now, my point is that of course the punishment must reflect the crime; but not only does a three-year sentence have a devastating effect on the life of the sentenced, but it spreads out to other people who are dependent on the person, for example, the family and children who are without a father leading to all sorts of financial and social issues with children not having a father.
My final point is that prison also has an impact on the taxpayer. I have no figures on the per capita cost of a keeping a person in prison, building costs and maintenance, and prison staff, which all have an impact on the taxpayer. This expenditure is, of course, absolutely necessary but magistrates should be awarding convictions and sentences appropriate to the crime and guarding against unnecessary long sentences which have an impact on individual lives, spreading out to family and children and to the taxpayer.
To create a more humane society, could a modest legal system to represent many who appear in the courts and are not in a financial position to obtain legal representation, have a panel of lawyers who can be called upon to represent the unrepresented? This could be funded by the Government of Guyana.
This would be both humane and cost effective to society in that many are sentenced to prison as they do not have the ability (financial or intellectual) to represent themselves, leading to prison terms that may not have applied if they had legal representation. This would give a more humane court system in that (as frequently happens), fathers and mothers as breadwinners are sent to prison leading to social issues for whole families that may not have happened if they had legal representation.
Another benefit is a lower prison population with the benefit to the taxpayer. This system could be a neutral cost to the GoG as a lower prison population would give lower costs that would fund the “Legal Aid” provided. As an aside, it may be that people released from prison, (particularly those who feel unjustly prisoned), may have developed a “grudge” against the establishment and thereby more inclined to pursue a criminal career as they have been taught the ropes by more serious criminals.