Archbishop Joseph Harris’ initiative to petition Government to free from prison petty offenders who have remained on remand for an inordinately long time is laudable and deserving of support.
However, if it’s accepted and implemented in its current form, it would deal an unjust blow to many more accused persons, perhaps several times the number of those who would benefit.
Let me explain.
Fr Harris has courageously placed on the agenda reform of the criminal justice system, particularly the issue of petty offences, some of which ought never to have been crimes punishable by incarceration.
While the petition does not put it this way, it speaks of prisoners who have committed non-violent crimes that are bailable. But because they cannot raise bail, they have been in prison awaiting trial for much longer than the maximum jail terms for such crimes.
In other words had the justice system been efficient, such persons would have tried and found guilty or not guilty, and fined or jailed or set free—instead of being locked up in jails that anyone who knows about them will tell you manufacture more criminals.
But there is inequity in this pursuit of swift justice.
What happens to the thousands more petty offenders who are similarly charged, but who managed to raise bail—hence they are not in prison—and like their counterparts in prison, await their day in court?
Will they continue to live in limbo as the rusted wheels of justice turn ever so slowly, as they watch others walk free?
In fact, if the Government should agree with Fr Harris’ petition, we may well see one or two of four or five men who were charged for the same crime walk free while the others await trial.
Surely, that is not what the Archbishop intended.
Which brings us back to the core problems that we must deal with: revising the laws to remove some archaic infractions that ought not to be in today’s statute books; increasing penalties that are woefully inadequate for many offences; speeding up the judicial system by eliminating preliminary inquiries and implementing plea bargaining; and giving effect to many more reforms that have been bandied about for decades.
It’s not that the Archbishop’s initiative should be dismissed because of a single though fatal flaw.
In fact, the offences that can be categorised “petty” should be compiled soon, and decisions be made on what can be eliminated, decriminalised or referred to special petty courts.
If the authorities, parliamentarians included, can fast-track such reforms the way they did Section 34—which was a good measure, except for when it was manipulated—then all persons facing petty charges for unduly lengthy periods, be they in jail or on bail, can be flushed from the system.
That would reduce overcrowding of the prisons, making them more manageable. And it would relieve the courts of tens of thousands of matters, some of which ought never to have reached there, and others that can be settled by mediation, arbitration or special courts.
Now, we can do all of the above and more, but still find that serious crimes such as possession and use of illegal firearms, robbery with violence, rape, murder, etc, continue unabated.
Blame for this scourge lies with the families and communities that breed and harbour such criminals, and with the police who are charged with protecting the nation but seem incapable of fulfilling their mandate.
For as long as the detection rate and apprehension of hardened criminals remains abysmally low, and the conviction rate even lower, we shall be saddled with rampant crime.
We can only hope that if we remove petty crimes from the statute books, hence relieve the police of wasting time on arresting petty offenders, they will have more time and resources to focus on serious crimes—with better results.
I know there are those who believe that the “broken windows” theory—going after all lawlessness—is the way to attack crime. I agree, to a point. Lawlessness among otherwise “decent” citizens is unacceptable.
Breaking traffic regulations and building codes, littering, wasting precious water, rampant noise pollution—all need to be eliminated if our society is to remain civilised. We may, however, have to prioritise how we attack the beast if we are to make any headway.
What if the police charge thousands of offenders for relatively minor infractions? Would we feel safer?
Or would it not be better they go after those who commit serious crimes, ensure that they are charged, convicted and incarcerated?
Although general lawlessness angers me, I would be more comfortable knowing that most if not all violent criminals are either dead or in jail.
I therefore support Archbishop Harris’s initiative, but as part of a broader reformation of our legal, judicial and penal systems.