EDITOR, The Tribune.
JUSTICE Stephen Isaacs’ call (at the ceremony opening the legal year) for amendments to the Bail Act to return to magistrates the discretion to grant bail to violent criminal offenders should be respectfully treated for what it is: the (wrong) opinion of a spokesman for an interest group. It should not be taken as having any special legitimacy, not least as against the opinion of any other resident of a country where violent crime is far too high largely because of failures of the judiciary.
Judges occupy a unique place in our society in terms of their ability to influence norms throughout the society. While we have many fine and competent judges (such as Dame Anita Allen and many others), as a whole the criminal bench (magistracy included) has failed us miserably in terms of sentencing and decisions over bail. This has led not only to countless individual tragedies (people killed, robbed and raped by individuals out on bail) but has undermined the country’s orderly development in many ways. Many areas of New Providence are commercial dead zones after dusk thanks to the prevalence of repeat offenders and people wearing ankle bracelets. These are places where judges and magistrates do not live.
Far from returning to magistrates their discretion over bail, what our politicians should be doing is examining ways to remove from all judges any discretion to grant bail in any offence involving firearms or violence against the person. This may involve a constitutional referendum, although parliamentary/executive control over judicial behaviour is certainly achievable by other means.
The first thing we need is for our politicians (and Bahamians generally) to understand that the judiciary has no automatic right to influence public policy over these issues. And it has neither an immunity from criticism nor a right to deference from the public.
Thanks to past instances of our politicians’ deference to judicial opinions, sentences for violent crimes in The Bahamas are often absurdly light. A few years ago, Mr Ingraham’s government backed away from a measly four-year minimum sentence for illegal firearm possession in the face of Judicial pressure (Cayman, Bermuda and the UK all have 15 year minimum sentences). Magistrates were given discretion instead.
The result has been atrocious. In a country where armed robbery occurs with casual frequency and gunfire is heard all night in some neighborhoods, people are routinely sentenced to nine months or a few years for possession of illegal firearms. By comparison, the norm in our region is 10 to 20 years, even (or perhaps especially) in countries with far lower gun crime levels, and hence far less compelling need for sentencing aimed at having a normative effect.
Politicians who are serious about this country’s development should by now recognise when it is time to thank the judiciary for its sage advice – then flatly reject it.
January 12, 2018.