Truth in sentencing: Life imprisonment should mean life imprisonment
A problematic situation exists in the laws which govern the sentences handed down to criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes. And the time to fix it is now.
We read the stories on a regular basis; murderers, rapists, child sexual predators among other violent criminals inflict brutal and lifelong trauma on their victims. However, after being convicted of their horrific crimes, these predators then stand before our learned judges who are compelled by statute law and judicial precedent to utilize arithmetical formulae to determine precisely how much jail time to hand down to them. And, unfortunately, time and time again these calculations seem far more focused on reducing the prison time of criminals rather than delivering the justice that victims demand.
This gulf between the victims’ expectations and the actual punishment imposed by the court is particularly deep on matters involving convicted murderers. In a time when murderers are no longer sentenced to death (this is apparently reserved for the worst of the worst, whatever that means), life imprisonment is now the greatest sanction the Court can levy against murderers.
To assume, however, that the convicted murderer would remain in prison until he or she dies would be a grave error. In our courts, a life sentence does not extend beyond 30 years, which in actual calendar years is 22 years, six months confinement.
In essence, our judicial system holds that if you end the life of a person by foul means, you will forfeit no more than 22.5 years of your own life. But it actually gets worse, much worse than this. For example, If the murderer meets certain elements in the sentencing formula, such as pleading guilty early in the process, not having previous convictions, showing remorse, having a favourable social inquiry report, his or her sentence could be significantly reduced, far below the 23 years.
These sentences are weak, and often far removed from our people’s understanding of what constitutes appropriate penalties for such crimes.
Parliament needs to step in and fix this. Judges do not make laws. They simply interpret and apply the laws. It is completely within the power of the legislature to write mandatory sentencing laws for the vilest of crimes.
If we cherish the lives of our people, then our laws must reflect that principle by imposing long custodial sentences on those who deliberately injure the serenity we seek for ourselves and others.
Such punishments would also underline the proposition that criminals must and will be held accountable for their crimes. No one should ever assume impunity beyond the reach of our laws. Such laws would also have the added benefit of increasing the matrix of measures that would deter crime. Of course, there are some criminals who would not be deterred.
And no one law in and of itself is the silver bullet that would win our war against crime. Indeed, no country is without crime.
But we have send a message that human life has value and anyone who takes a life must be prepared to spend the rest of his own life separated from society.
It is therefore time that the sentencing laws in St Vincent and the Grenadines turn squarely towards the protection of the victims of crime. Truth in sentencing is now embedded within the legal codes in the USA, New Zealand, Australia and other democracies.
This should be the case in SVG as well. And Vincentians would then have every confidence that when a convicted murderer is sentenced to life imprisonment, he or she would be there until death.