Fed up of delays in hearing their cases, inmates at the Golden Grove Prison last Monday resorted to the one of the few means they have to make the authorities listen to them.
About 130 prisoners embarked on a week-long hunger strike in protest against what they said were “severe delays” in the judicial system. Relatives of the incarcerated men said that some of the inmates have been waiting between nine and 11 years for a trial.
This is an old and ongoing problem in Trinidad and Tobago’s court system, and it effectively denies justice to the prisoners since it is justice delayed. In some cases, inmates have spent more time in the Remand Yard than they would have if they had already been tried, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence. That is the absurdity and unfairness created by this untoward red tape.
Moreover, such delays have pernicious effects on the principle of justice itself. In some situations, an individual, even if not guilty of an offence — for example, possession of marijuana — would be well advised to plead guilty and serve a six-month sentence, rather than fight his case while waiting even longer imprisoned in Remand. This also means that the justice system automatically discriminates against the poor who cannot afford bail and who must, in effect, serve time while awaiting trial. The assumption of innocence before guilt is proven, a fundamental principle in all civilised legal systems, is thus mere wind in this nation’s courts.
What exacerbates the issue is that the problem is far from insurmountable. The length of time it takes for cases to come to trial is caused by bureaucratic bottlenecks, and this could be solved through better bureaucracy. Very simply, what is required are more courts, better management systems, more staff, and better training. The details on how to achieve this are contained in reports going back more than 20 years. While some limited improvements have occurred within the prisons, the issue of delays is due almost entirely to inefficiencies within the court system.
Time and time again, these delays have been cited as an underlying cause of the uncontrolled crime rate in T&T. If inmates are being denied their day in court, it is also the case that criminals who can afford bail have been free to commit other crimes, confident that it will take years before they might be found guilty and imprisoned.
Crime can only be contained when fought on all fronts. Early detection and speedy trials are key, but so too is the more nebulous issue of perception of the justice system. Delay fosters an image of judicial unfairness and inefficiency and that, in turn, helps foster criminality.