The option of creative punishment
It is not often that magistrates make wise use of the broad discretion which they enjoy in sentencing lawbreakers. Most are inclined to play by the book and limit their discretion to working out the severity of fine or imprisonment. It is therefore refreshing to see recent examples of magistrates who appear willing to deliver quick and decisive justice without adding further strain on the over-burdened court and prison system.
The Chaguanas First Magistrates’ Court this week witnessed a striking exercise of sensitivity in judicial decision-making when Magistrate Rae Roopchand bonded and admonished a penitent housebreaker. “Ah sorry. I was not in the right state of mind when I broke into the house,” explained the guilty-pleading housebreaker, adding: “I am not a thief.”
Hearing that the miscreant was a Forestry Division supervisor who, on the fateful night, had drunk too much for his own good, Magistrate Roopchand advised him to seek help through Alcoholics Anonymous. The drunken housebreaker did not, however, go unpunished. Having already taken a severe beating from angry homeowners, he was put on a bond of $5,000 to keep the peace for a year, failing which he would have to return to court for sentencing.
A few days before that, in the Port of Spain Magistrates’ Court, two reporters also had the benefit of a magistrate’s creative approach to sentencing. Appearing before Magistrate Debbie Ann Bassaw, the two pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and received suspended fines of $700 and $1,100 respectively. Additionally, one of them was sentenced to 120 hours of community service with the other being required to serve 180 hours.
In both cases, matters were treated with dispatch, fairness and sensitivity and without further clogging of the court system. It helped also, that in both cases, the accused persons did not dispute their guilt and allowed justice to take its course, quickly and effectively, while the police officers who had arrested them were ready to proceed.
These examples demonstrate in a small and relatively painless way how the burdens on the administration of justice and the penal system might be minimised. There is no reason for persons who have committed relatively minor infractions of the law to keep going back and forth to court or to be added to the swollen population of incarcerated persons.
These cases also serve to remind us about the other aspects of the Administration of Justice Act 2012 which contained the infamous Section 34. The law was supported by both sides of Parliament as a solution to the increasingly clogged prison system. In the end, the effort was derailed when Parliament had to undo the damage of Section 34.
While the Government’s major initiative was blown apart by Section 34, Magistrates Bassaw and Roopchand are demonstrating the benefits of approaching the problem with small solutions and creativity. Others would do well to take example from them.