Sentences to be reduced for convicted killers
Inmates serving life in prison without the possibility of parole in the Cayman Islands will, within the next two years, have their incarceration periods reduced.
The Conditional Release Bill, 2014, was unanimously approved by lawmakers late Friday, but it is likely to have some amendments made to it when the Legislative Assembly resumes Wednesday, prior to a third and final reading of the bill.
The bill introduces a system that sets general guidelines for the release of all prisoners on license conditions. It applies to all those incarcerated, including juveniles, and to those already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
In criminal cases, the sentencing guidelines – called tariffs – are largely left up to the court’s discretion. The only exception stated in the law is for murder offenses, which require a sentence of 30 years prior to any consideration of release on license. Even then, in cases where there are aggravated or extenuating circumstances surrounding the killing, the prison term can be set higher or lower by a judge.
Currently, the only sentence available for murder in the Cayman Islands is life in prison without parole.
“It is now considered inhuman and degrading punishment for any person to be incarcerated for the rest of his life without the possibility of ever being released,” the bill’s memorandum of objects and reasons reads. “All prisoners serving what used to be whole life terms must have a specified term of imprisonment.”
According to the bill, all other offenses that carry more than a one-year sentence require the offender to serve at least 60 percent of that sentence in prison. If the prisoner is deemed no longer to be a threat to the community, he or she will serve the remainder of the sentence under supervised release. Sentences of a year or less require release after 60 percent of the jail term is served, barring exceptional circumstances.
The bill, when passed, will replace parole provisions in the Prisons Law that require a prisoner’s release – unsupervised – at the “earliest release date,” meaning after they have served two-thirds of the sentence.
“This [release] is regardless of whether they are still a risk to society or whether they have been rehabilitated,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said Friday. “We’re told by police all the time, when certain persons are released from prison, we see a spike in certain types of crime. We’re seeing now a spike again, and when we look at who has recently been released from prison, you just shake your head because you know…some of them are involved in what is going on.”
Mr. McLaughlin said Cayman’s re-offending rate among former prisoners is 73 percent at last report, much higher than the Caribbean average of 60 percent or the U.K. average of 50 percent.
Parole can currently be granted to prisoners who have served either five-ninths or one-third of their prison sentence, depending on the crime committed. But in any case, that period of parole supervision typically ends when two-thirds of the sentence is served.
A prisoner who is sentenced to 10 years under the new regime would be considered for release after six years. If the prisoner is determined to have been rehabilitated, his or her release would be under licensed supervision for the remaining four years of the sentence.
“There will no longer be any automatic right of release once you have reached your earliest release date,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
The bill makes transitional provisions for handling cases involving current prisoners serving life without parole: “The director of prisons shall send to the Grand Court the case records of all prisoners serving life sentences … and the Grand Court shall … pronounce in open court a period of incarceration for each prisoner.” The cases of prisoners who already have applications in for release on license under the Cayman Islands Prisons Law would be decided through the normal process.
Any “lifers” who are ultimately released on license will have their license conditions extended for the remainder of their lives. Applications can be made once a year to the Conditional Release Board (created under the new bill) to vary the conditions of that license.
That board, which will make decisions on prisoners’ release on license, is to be appointed by the governor and will include at least two retired judges, retired magistrates or attorneys.
Other appointees named as the governor “considers appropriate” can be individuals with law enforcement experience, mental health professionals and ministers of religion. The board would have no fewer than five members and no more than nine.
The board, by majority vote, will make decisions and orders related not only to prisoners’ release, but also to the terms of release during the license period, and whether a release license should be suspended or revoked.
Consideration of conditional release from prison can be considered once a year. The board will consider the impact of the prisoner’s release on the community, the prisoner’s risk of re-offending and whether the prisoner is able to comply with release conditions. Also, victim impact statements and reports from prison counseling services will be considered by the board.
Any release on license from prison “shall remain in force until the expiration of the term of [the prisoner’s sentence]” unless the board revokes the license terms earlier.
Governor Helen Kilpatrick announced in April her intention to release four prisoners serving life terms for murder from Her Majesty’s Prison, Northward, on license within the next 18 to 20 months. At least two of those men have already been released.
Former governor Duncan Taylor had already granted conditional release to one convicted killer in 2013 under the powers granted the governor in the Prisons Law.
The issue of whether prisoners in Cayman should continue to receive life without parole sentences in murder cases has been ongoing for the better part of eight years.
In 2006, following a review of six cases involving Northward prison inmates serving life sentence for murder, the Human Rights Committee at the time recommended that either the sentencing judge or the chief justice be allowed to review the circumstances surrounding the lifers’ crimes and determine a minimum prison term.
After a seven-month review of the issue, committee attorneys concluded that laws that impose life sentences for all types of murder offenses are contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as two other international human rights treaties.
The committee said the six prisoners would be highly likely to succeed if they took their claims before the European Court of Human Rights, and that they would probably be awarded damages.
Moreover, Mr. McLaughlin said Friday that with the advent of the Cayman Islands Bill of Rights, which came into force in November 2012, life imprisonment cases could now be challenged within the local courts, as well as in Europe.