Make haste slowly, Mr Chuck, but don't stop

Thursday, June 28, 2018

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The passion and energy of Mr Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, to right the wrongs in the Jamaica justice system, have made him one of our favourites among the several people who have held the portfolio across political administrations.

Those are stellar traits that are critical in the context of a country that has steadily grown more cynical about the application, the quality and speed of justice in this beloved island.

Still, we want to urge Mr Chuck to make haste slowly, knowing that it took us as a nation a long time to descend into this dark place we occupy, where justice is concerned. We would hazard a guess that few Jamaicans, were it to be put to the test, would express any belief that they would get justice if they needed it.

We are making reference to Mr Chuck's complaint about the less than desirable take-up of the plea-bargaining system introduced by Government last year June, to help reduce the backlog of cases in the courts, by lowering penalties in cases which provide assistance to the Crown. This is under the new Criminal Justice (Plea Negotiations and Agreement) Act.

“… I am very disappointed that it has not really taken off because the plea-bargaining system that we enacted was to ensure that we get more guilty pleas, not the judges to really push it, but they can urge prosecutors and defence counsel to try and get together and have more guilty pleas,” bemoaned Mr Chuck.

The minister told participants at the case flow management seminar facilitated by the National Centre for State Courts in the USA and the Judicial Education Institute of Jamaica that:

“…We will never be able to get rid of the backlog if we have to try 90 per cent of the cases. If we can't get down to less that 30 per cent of the cases being tried (and) at least 70 per cent of the cases being dealt with by guilty plea or plea bargaining, we are not going to succeed.”

What Mr Chuck needs to remember is that it is arguably part and parcel of the Jamaican culture and psyche that we do not readily admit guilt. And it starts with politicians who always come out swinging, no matter how wrong they are. People in Jamaica don't resign over wrongdoing. Admitting guilt is tantamount to self-destruction.

Hence, it will take time, patience and a heavy dose of public education to get us to the point where we can see the value of plea bargaining. This applies to every level of the court system and the Jamaican bar which will need to encourage defence counsel to recommend it to their guilty clients.

Defence lawyers, in particular, make a reputation from being able to “get off” clients who are guilty, even if it was a case based on technicality, witnesses not coming forward or the other party not being able to afford equally expensive legal representation.

Mr Chuck seems to have at his command a group of experienced public relations people who mostly do a good job of getting him decent press. But we have a sense that they dropped the ball on the plea bargaining deal. They need to pick it up again and run with it.

One year is not enough time to get it to sink home. So, Minister, make haste slowly but don't stop.

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