By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THOUSANDS of people could be affected by the government’s efforts to modernise its correctional services system by providing convicts with access to parole, National Security Minister Dr Bernard Nottage said yesterday.
His comments came during a regional correctional department heads conference where he announced that the fight against crime will now be aided by a $20m loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) intended to assist the government in preventing crime.
Dr Nottage said his ministry has been working for several years to secure the loan and make the multi-layered programme it will fund a reality.
His ministry, he said, will be primarily responsible for using the loaned funds but will work in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Social Services.
Parole is the provisional release of prisoners who agree to certain conditions prior to completing their maximum sentence period.
While parole does not currently exist in The Bahamas, people who behave well can, in some instances, be released from prison early.
Offering parole to convicted prisoners will be a part of the government’s larger attempt to transform the Department of Correctional Services into an institution that focuses more on rehabilitation.
“(We want to) better help integrating offenders in society through activities such as the design and integration of a comprehensive rehabilitation model and a curriculum built on evidence-based practices,” he said, noting that last year the government passed a new Correctional Services Bill designed to change the “emphasis of our penal system from punitive to rehabilitative.”
“In the Bahamas, we have just over 1,500 men and women incarcerated. About 50 are women. Half of those behind bars have not been found guilty of any crime, although they have been charged and are awaiting trial. We have decided as a government that that is not a tolerable situation, not a desirable one and should seek to overcome it. The Inter-American Bank has joined us and in addition, they have been willing to assist us in the development of a parole system and hopefully with the development of a parole system we will have in place the ability to release many of these who are in prison earlier than they would normally be released in a manner that they can be adequately monitored so they can be returned to society.”
Among those Dr Nottage expects to be affected by an improved correctional services system that offers parole to convicts are those in jail for having small quantities of drugs.
“There are lots of young men incarcerated for the possession of small amounts of drugs,” he said. “We need to look at those and we are hoping to be able to develop drug treatment courts so that once again these people, instead of festering in jails, will be released in an orderly way under a system of monitoring that transforms them from persons committing crime to persons that are crime free.
“Thousands (of people that come before courts for having small amounts of drugs will be impacted by the system’s transformation),” he said. “Because if you look at just drug charges, just vagrancy, we have 1,500 in the prison at any one time now. It used to be a little less than that but it’s growing. I think when we introduce this system it will be significantly reduced. The police place about 150 cases before the courts each week and many of them end up behind bars for one reason or another, either because they can’t raise bail or because they are convicted so our task is to use these resources the best way we can, to look at what other people have done and have been successful with and make adjustments as necessary.”
Dr Nottage acknowledged that the government will have to train “lots” of people to become parole officers. He added that under its arrangement with the IDB, the government will have to initiate a study of the justice system.
“We are required by the grants that the prison has gotten, to do a study and the study will guide us as to who we should use parole for, what kind of cases, what age of persons, what crimes they’ve committed, etc,” he said. “We’re not just going to start a parole programme. We’re going to have a study first and based on our findings introduce what we think will work for us.”
Asked if the $20m loan is enough for the government to accomplish its goals, he said: “Twenty million is what we have to work with and we will try our best to make it work.”
As for other ways the loan will be used, Dr Nottage said the government will seek to help at risk youth through job training programmes and strengthen the justice administration system by, among other things, providing innovative dispute resolution mechanisms.