THE criminal justice system is in crisis and urgent remedies need to be put in place in order to improve the efficiency and productivity of the system, Chief Justice Ivor Archie has said.
One such remedy, he said yesterday, was the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of marijuana.
He spoke at the Convocation Hall of the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain, during the ceremonial opening of the new law term.
It was his view that drug trafficking and consumption should be treated differently. Archie said drug addiction is a disease "and is as much a public health issue as it is a criminal problem".
"This is not a moral judgment although one might observe that marijuana consumption probably wreaks no more havoc than alcohol addiction but we provide support for one and punishment for the other.
"The economic and social consequences of incarcerating large numbers of our youths for possession and or consumption of small amounts of drugs are immense. Moreover it is now appearing that the consensus about many of the assumptions about the effects of marijuana in particular is unravelling. So much so that CNN's Dr Sanjay Gupta recently publicly changed his stance on the issue," said Archie.
He said in an economy where the State is the major employer and persons with a criminal conviction are barred from employment with the State, those persons who are convicted of minor non-violent crimes such as simple marijuana possession are being pushed into a life of criminality. The Drug Treatment Centre, Archie said, "is a first effort at arresting the trend".
"The burden on the police and prisons and the courts in terms of cost and human resource will be lessened if we focus on the scourge of trafficking, but as long as we have laws on the books we have to enforce them. We must take a long hard look at policy in this area," said Archie.
Archie also suggested the discontinuation of jury trials and preliminary enquiries, regular use of the plea bargain legislation, investment in the latest technology to assist police in improved investigations and the establishment of a structured Public Defender's Office similar to that of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
The Chief Justice said jury trials are becoming more lengthy, expensive and unmanageable.
Archie said just as magistrates preside over matters without a jury, so too matters at the High Court can be dealt with.
He said issues and evidence involved in criminal trials have become more complex. As a result, those trials often had to be interrupted for lengthy legal submissions "while jurors twiddle their thumbs; evidence is led in voir dires and then, if deemed admissible, has to be repeated in its entirety before a jury."
"It is now not unusual for trials to last several months at the end of which the jury receives a summing up covering many weeks' evidence, which they are supposed to assimilate and then required to return a verdict in a few short hours. It is not fair to them," said Archie.
Plea bargaining, he said, was an essential feature of most modern criminal justice systems.
"It is not a soft option and the court retains the discretion over sentencing so that the prosecution and defence cannot simply cut a deal and impose it on the court. We have plea bargaining legislation but it has not so far been employed with any regularity," he said.
Archie added that while he found many of the criticisms of the Indictable Offences (Preliminary Enquiry) Act to be valid, he said his main difficulty with it was not that "it went too far but that it did not go far enough."
"What it does, in a rather cumbersome manner, is transfer a lot of the old procedural concepts from the Magistrates' Courts to the High Court. In the process there are several steps and procedures that add no value," he said.
Investment in the latest technology to assist detectives in conducting their investigations in a more thorough way was also needed as "we can't have 21st century justice without 21st century police investigations and that requires investment in and facility with the latest available technology," he said.
The establishment of a Public Defender's Office would also assist in alleviating the backlog of criminal trials Archie said.
He said despite the large number of attorneys graduating from law school each year, there appeared to be a shortage of practising attorneys at the Criminal Bar especially at the experience level required for more serious and complex matters.
"Despite increases in the fees payable on legal aid briefs, there are apparently still not many attorneys who regard a substantial legal aid practice as not financially viable. This is further compounded by the fact that attorneys often return briefs just before trials or appeals without any consequence other than loss of the potential fee.
"...Some effort has already been made to alleviate the problem by increasing the complement of lawyers at the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority but it would make sense to go all the way and establish a properly staffed and structured Public Defender's Office that can provide a career path for attorneys like the DPP's office," he said.
He added that currently there are 575 people in custody awaiting trial for 468 murders and given the length of time it takes to determine one murder trial, if ten judges were to be assigned to preside over only those murder cases for the next five years the backlog still would not be cleared.
"This cannot go on! " he said.