Budget, legal issues hold up human rights legislation

In the next budget year, the Cayman Islands is not likely to put into effect the Conditional Release Law, which – among other things – eliminates automatic life sentences for prisoners convicted of murder.

According to Premier Alden McLaughlin, the delay is largely due to the government’s overwhelmed legal drafting staff and partly due to the number of additional staff government must hire to support conditional releases and supervision of inmates.

The law was passed last year in the Legislative Assembly and has been assented to by Governor Helen Kilpatrick. Under the governor’s prerogative of mercy, her office has approved the supervised release of several Caymanian prisoners who were serving life sentences.

The director of Cayman’s Department of Community Rehabilitation, Teresa Echenique-Bowen, told Legislative Assembly’s Finance Committee Wednesday that regulations to the law had not been put into effect, preventing the law from coming into force.

Ms. Echenique-Bowen also told lawmakers that no new staff have been hired at the department, which would likely be required once the Conditional Release Law does take effect.

“At this point, we have not received those resources,” Ms. Echenique-Bowen said. “I’m hoping that is something that will be considered.”

Premier McLaughlin said a committee led by Deputy Governor Franz Manderson’s office is working on the regulations to the law, but he couldn’t state when the group would complete its work.

East End MLA Arden McLean pressed the premier regarding whether the process will be completed within the next budget year, which begins on July 1.

“[If it is], we will have to make [financial] adjustments,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “That is not contemplated in the numbers that are currently in the budget.”

“It couldn’t have been very important then,” Mr. McLean responded.

The law, which passed unanimously in October 2014, introduces a system that sets general guidelines for the release of all prisoners on license conditions. It applies to all inmates, 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.

“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 the sentence in prison. If the prisoner is deemed to no longer 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.

Governor Kilpatrick announced in April 2014 her intention to release four prisoners serving life terms for murder from Her Majesty’s Prison, Northward, on license. Former governor Duncan Taylor granted conditional release to one convicted killer in 2013 under the powers granted to the governor in the Prisons Law.

The issue of whether prisoners in Cayman should continue to receive life sentences without parole in murder cases has been under debate for the better part of a decade.

In 2006, following a review of six cases involving Northward 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, 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.