Legislators argue 30-year murder sentence revision

Although a bill that will revamp Cayman’s current rules on prisoner sentencing and parole laws passed through the Legislative Assembly on Friday, it seemed some lawmakers took no great pleasure in reviewing the legislation.

“I wish to God that we would give to our needy and our elderly….all the time and effort we put on some of these criminals,” Bodden Town MLA Anthony Eden said.

The chief concern among most of those members who debated the Conditional Release Bill, 2014, centered on the change from mandatory life sentences upon murder convictions to a 30-year “tariff” in such cases. The tariff means that prisoners, in most cases, would have to serve at least 30 years in prison prior to their release on supervised license.

“It took a lot of soul searching to reduce my conviction from life meaning life, to life meaning 30 years,” North Side MLA Ezzard Miller said during the debate.

Mr. Miller was a member of the elected government in 1991 when the U.K. “dropped that nuclear bomb on us,” he said, referring to an Order-in-Council that ended the application of the death penalty for murder convictions in the Cayman Islands. He drew comparisons between that situation and the passing now of what are, in effect, lesser sentences for murder.

“There are those of us who believe that [1991 decision] was the opening of the floodgates for criminality in Cayman,” Mr. Miller said.

The North Side MLA also pointed out that the 30-year sentencing tariff in the legislation was not set in stone, and that a judge could set a lower prison sentence given extenuating circumstances in the case. “It is not impossible or improbable to get a very liberal-minded judge who might decide that six years is adequate for murder.”

Mr. Eden was vocal in expressing his displeasure about the 30-year murder tariffs, and noted he had been one of the legislators who fought over the past two decades against the elimination of life sentences for murder convictions.

“All in the name of human rights,” he said. “What about these families here in the Cayman Islands? What rights can you protect when you decide to break the law?

“We’ve got to stop the molly-coddling of criminals. I pray day and night for these little islands, and I hope that whatever the agenda of our Mother is for these islands…it really makes me wonder what it’s all about.”

East End MLA Arden McLean, a minister of government between 2005 and 2009, said the U.K. had been pushing for the elimination of life without parole for murder cases since 2005, in meetings with the then-Cabinet.

“They suggested between 14 and 17 years [tariffs for murder],” Mr. McLean said. “It was then I knew that we were not really, really in control of our destiny.”

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said that similar requests had been made of his government during 2009 to 2012, but that he “didn’t want that on his hands.” “I’m not sure we’re doing the right thing as far as it being a deterrent,” he said of the 30-year prison sentence tariffs.

Attorney General Samuel Bulgin, making a rare contribution to the parliamentary debate Friday, said the issue of automatic life sentences for murder was something Cayman had to address in the short term, particularly given the introduction of a bill of rights into the territory’s constitution two years ago.

“We all knew from way back that something had to be done,” Mr. Bulgin said. “Despite the reservations [of lawmakers], and they are genuine reservations, the fact is that we are at a stage in our development where we can no longer ignore the obvious. The failure to do what we are doing today will certainly, certainly expose this country to adverse findings by our courts, with the potential for serious monetary damages to be awarded against us.

“The status quo is not available to us anymore.”

Opposition to the 30-year tariffs for murder aside, most lawmakers who debated the bill, including Mr. Bush, Mr. Miller and George Town MLA Winston Connolly, said government was on the right track in seeking to rehabilitate prisoners following their release. Mr. Miller and Mr. Connolly both said they would like to see some changes made in appointments to the Conditional Release Board, which was created by the bill, to include some “Caymanian common sense,” but noted that issue could be dealt with in amendments to the legislation.

Premier Alden McLaughlin also acknowledged there would likely need to be greater financial support for the prisons service and the Department of Community Rehabilitation in order to assist in rehabilitation efforts.

“That is something that I and the government are very conscious of,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We are living in a time when the civil service is the target of most of the community and certainly most of the media houses.

“The police get blamed for everything that goes wrong. But by the time we need the police, a lot of other things have gone wrong to get us there. Recidivism is one of the big issues that we have to deal with.”