Imagine the following scenario: You are walking down the street with $4,900 in a shopping bag, on your way to buy a used car. A man accosts you and, unceremoniously, punches you in the face. You stagger back, and the bag goes flying.
A police officer appears and, while he is detaining your assailant, you notice the shopping bag has disappeared. You turn the corner and see a man flipping through your stack of bills. The police officer detains him, too.
Both the assailant and the thief admit their guilt. But instead of making two arrests, the officer instead issues them a pair of written “cautions,” and advises them not to do it again.
Sound dramatic? Perhaps. But according to the language in a proposed bill now before local lawmakers, the above fiction could become reality in the Cayman Islands.
The Cautions (Adult) Bill, 2007, outlines a procedure for police officers to issue written cautions (i.e. formal “warnings”) to suspects – rather than their being arrested, charged and possibly convicted – who have admitted guilt to committing criminal offenses that carry potential sentences of less than four years … or, more worryingly, to certain specified offenses, including theft of under $5,000; handling stolen goods worth less than $5,000; assault occasioning actual bodily harm; and possession of a controlled drug (such as ganja) that is not a hard drug (such as cocaine).
Everyone knows the Cayman Islands court system can become congested, particularly with the constant inundation of relatively low-level offenders. It may not be an unthinkable idea to give police officers the power to issue “cautions,” which do go on a suspect’s police record and can be taken into account by courts when dealing with subsequent offenses.
That being said, it seems inconceivable for that discretion to extend to letting off someone who has stolen or fenced thousands of dollars of goods, or who has purposely injured another person through physical violence.
Our readers seem to agree. Here are some comments we received in response to the news story we published on the Cautions Bill:
- “If this law is passed, Cayman’s lawmakers just upped the serious crime rate 100 percent. Guaranteed.”
- “This is jaw-dropping news. Who is behind this crime-promoting, lawless society-fostering and tourist-deterring bill?”
- “[O]ne of the widespread criticisms of the whole cautions system [in the U.K.] is that it’s open to abuse. In busy areas it’s always very tempting to offer the offender, quite often a repeat offender, the option of taking a caution to avoid being charged for an offense simply because it saves police time and resources.” (We have published the entire comment in full to the right of this column.)
We would go a step further than our commenters and state that, fundamentally, trying to ease pressure off the courts by giving police the option not to enforce the law, ad hoc, is an unsound strategy. If lawmakers wish to “decriminalize” certain behaviors, they should change the law accordingly — not create a new law making that behavior punishable by prison in some instances, and by a written caution in others, at an officer’s discretion.
But more to the point, if our courts are becoming too crowded, our court staff overwhelmed and our judges overworked, our alternative suggestion is to 1) build more courtrooms (a new and badly needed courthouse would even be better); 2) employ more court staff; and 3) hire more judges.
And then, repeat those steps for our prisons system.