If there are two problems for which Royal Cayman Islands Police Commissioner David Baines could be held responsible — it’s clogging up our country’s courtrooms and Her Majesty’s Prison at Northward.
That observation, of course, does not reflect negatively on our outgoing police chief. Quite the opposite. It is evidence that he and his officers have been performing their duties of arresting criminal suspects, compiling evidence and helping prosecutors to secure convictions. Sending people to court, and then to prison, is what the police do. Whether there’s enough room for the arrested or convicted is a different conversation.
The overcrowding of Cayman’s courtrooms is a subject that Chief Justice Anthony Smellie has pursued for a number of years. Toward the goal of constructing a new courthouse, which could more than double the number of available courtrooms, consulting firm PwC is about halfway through its timeline for developing an outline business case for the project, with the report’s expected delivery date in June.
The update on the courthouse plans follows a news report last week that Northward prison is jammed to maximum capacity, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 210 prisoners, a figure that can fluctuate from day to day.
Our stance on building new courthouses or new prison cells is identical to our stance on, say, building new schools or hiring social services staff. That is: Whatever our leaders in those areas say they need — give it to them.
If we need a new courthouse, build it. If we need additional prison capacity, provide it. Obviously priorities must be set, but having the financial ability to fulfill vital functions of government is a luxury that our wealthy country can afford (presuming government purges politically based expenditures, and waste, fraud and abuse from its operations).
If it turns out that a leader’s assessment of need was wrong, or if a project devolves into a monumental boondoggle like Clifton Hunter et al., then the relevant decision-maker must be held accountable.
That being said, from our vantage point, it appears that much more could be done to ease courtroom congestion that doesn’t involve a major capital undertaking. Far too often, we see cases drag on and on for months or years, with continuance after continuance, finally to resolve in the levying of a small fine and/or “time already served.”
For example, our judges could be much stricter in regard to dates and deadlines, so that attorneys, defendants, witnesses and law enforcement become aware that there are consequences for lack of preparation or attendance.
In the U.S., authorities have attempted to deal with prison overcrowding through a mishmash of measures, including alternative sentencing, parole and outright non-enforcement of standing law.
As reported by PBS Frontline, here are the average times that a prisoner in the U.S. actually serves after being convicted of the following crimes:
- Sex assault — 35 months
- Robbery — 44 months
- Kidnapping — 52 months
- Rape — 65 months
- Homicide — 71 months
- All violent crimes — 43 months
- Federal marijuana charges (no parole) — 42 months
The above is an approach, and an outcome, that Cayman should studiously avoid replicating. We should enforce the law robustly and ensure that convicted people actually serve the sentences judges hand down.
Some people may protest that Cayman’s courts and prisons are filled with nonviolent drug offenders, particularly for possession or sale of ganja, and that police and prosecutors should not devote their attention to these “minor” infractions of the law. On the contrary, the possession of ganja is a serious, arrestable drug offense under Cayman law, and it should be enforced vigorously, uniformly and universally.
If it is the will of the people to “de-criminalize,” “legalize” or otherwise lessen the offense of ganja possession or anything else, then our legislators should do so — by changing the law, not by ignoring the law.
We cannot, as a country, selectively wink at certain laws, because it can engender disrespect for “the law” in general.