Changes to prisoners' release take effect Feb. 1

Board members sought for case reviews

The Cayman Islands Governor’s Office is seeking volunteers to help decide when and how criminals – including those convicted of murder – should be released from prison. 

Although lawmakers did not initially contemplate it during budget discussions this summer, the Conditional Release Law, passed in 2014 by the Legislative Assembly, will take effect Feb. 1, 2016, Deputy Governor Franz Manderson’s office announced Friday. 

In order to put the provisions of the law into full effect, a nine-person Conditional Release Board will be appointed, consisting of retired lawyers, retired judges, individuals with experience in law enforcement or mental health services, social services, ministers of religion or “any other interested persons.” Board members are to be paid $200 per meeting [$250 per meeting for the board chairperson] and an additional $100 per meeting in which the recall of certain prisoners who had been released is considered. 

“We are looking for members with diverse skills and experiences who are committed to the rehabilitation of offenders and the protection of the public,” a statement from Governor Helen Kilpatrick’s office on Friday indicated. 

The ‘lifers’ 

The Conditional Release Law, 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 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.” 

A further explanation sent by Governor Kilpatrick’s office on Friday noted that a “transitional arrangement” would be made for convicted killers already serving a mandatory life sentence. 

“Within 24 months of the law coming into force, the Grand Court will pronounce, in open court, a period of incarceration for [the] existing life prisoner as if it were sentencing an accused who has been convicted,” the statement read. 

This issue with “lifers” – prisoners who received automatic life sentences for murder in Cayman – has dogged the islands for the past 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. 

Governor Kilpatrick announced in April 2014 her intention to release, on license, four Northward prison inmates serving life terms for murder. 

Former governor Duncan Taylor granted conditional release to one convicted killer in 2013 under the powers granted to the governor in the Prisons Law. 

Other sentences 

All other criminal offenses that carry more than a one-year sentence require the offender, under the Conditional Release Law, 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 law replaces 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. The release under the Prisons Law is regardless of whether the offender is still believed to be a risk to society or whether the prisons system believes they can be rehabilitated. 

Cayman’s re-offending rate among former prisoners – as of 2014 – was 73 percent, 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, the 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. The Conditional Release Law no longer allows for any automatic right of release at the earliest release date. 

This means, under the coming law, a heavy responsibility on the members of the Conditional Release Board, which makes all decisions relating to the release of prisoners on license and the conditions of the release terms. 

“A prisoner will only be released [after serving 60 percent of their sentence] after he or she is deemed to be a lower risk to the community and engaged in the rehabilitation process,” the governor’s office statement indicated. “If released [the prisoner] will remain on license [supervised] until the end of the sentence.”