Thursday, January 18, 2018

New Bail Bill may be a necessary plaster

Express editorial logo298

Mark Fraser

 The Bail Amendment Bill, passed in the Lower House after yet another marathon sitting last weekend which ended at 2 a.m., marks a legislative get-tough stance against serious and repeat criminals. What impact this new law will have on crime remains an unknown quantity, however.

In advance of trial and conviction, the new measure takes out of circulation the person who, having been previously convicted of any of the offences listed in the Bill, is accused of any of these crimes or even attempting to commit them. The Bill is a near-term measure to put certain classes of criminals out of commission and to prevent their reverting to accustomed wrongdoings, from child abuse to firearms possession to manslaughter. 

As if to demonstrate need for tightened bail provisions, a man charged with raping his stepdaughters was on Monday allowed $150,000 bail. Questions immediately arise. Will the authorities be taking measures to ensure that the man has no contact with his victims? 

In a society where witnesses are often intimidated or even killed, what protective measures will ensure that the accused faces a judge and jury in a timely manner? 

Such questions also apply even more strongly to the other categories of accused, such as persons possessing illegal firearms, since it is safe to assume that such possession is for no good purpose.

The legislation, requiring a constitutional majority, will only be finalised after Senate debate. Disappointingly, the Opposition has voted against it, but its objections, based on the potential for worsened prison overcrowding, are worth noting. 

This Bill requires a constitutional majority because it infringes on the presumption of innocence. Before trial, these accused persons will be imprisoned—and, given Trinidad and Tobago’s judicial system, this incarceration will most likely occur very long before trial. 

The Inspector of Prisons’ 2012 Report notes, “At the Port of Spain Prison, Carrera Prison and Remand Prison (Golden Grove) the number of inmates is more than double the institutions’ capacity.” 

With more inmates awaiting trial, additional strain will be placed on already overstretched prison guards and the prisons may become even a greater pressure cooker for seasoning criminals, although these accused persons can apply to be released if their trial does not commence within 120 days.

Thus, for the legislation with its three-year sunset clause to have the desired long-term effect of deterring criminality, action to relieve prison overpopulation must also urgently be taken. But the society has now reached a brink where this Bill, whatever its shortcomings, may be a necessary plaster for a sore which requires long-term healing. 

The powers-that-be have just three years in which to use this new power, after which the results will presumably determine if the law stands or is repealed.