Number of jail inmates cut as magistrates battle causes of crime
Prisoner numbers have been slashed by more than 50 per cent over the last 11 years, The Royal Gazette can reveal.
Senior Magistrate Juan Wolffe said that locking up offenders was the “last option” and that community-based sentences meant debts to society could be repaid without jail time.
He added: “On a daily basis, magistrates are called upon to resolve extremely complex and delicate matters involving violence against our children and elderly; antisocial and criminal behaviour; parental dysfunction; drug and alcohol abuse; juvenile delinquency; and a rapid erosion of our social norms and values.
“Over the past ten to 15 years, the Magistrates’ Court has adopted a more humanistic and therapeutic approach to dealing with these types of cases by striking the right balance of applying the rule of law but also simultaneously being responsive to the plight of those who appear in the Magistrates’ Court.
“To do otherwise would be myopic and will not resolve the core issues which precipitated the offending behaviour.”
The prison service said the daily average number of people behind bars in 2000 was 326.
The figure was 283 a decade later and by mid-July this year it was 124.
Mr Wolffe said that the statistics, which showed a 56 per cent drop in the prison population over the 11-year period, were “indicative of the strenuous efforts of magistrates to divert persons away from incarceration.”
He added: “Of course, there may be other factors for the decrease in numbers, but I would assert that, as magistrates deal with the vast majority of sentencing matters in Bermuda, that it is their decision to divert offenders from prison which is largely the reason why the prison numbers have precipitously plummeted.”
Mr Wolffe said: “This is not only beneficial for the offender but ultimately it is beneficial to society.
“The drop in prison numbers also counteracts the false narrative in Bermuda that magistrates are just ‘locking people up’.
“Unfortunately, uninformed opinions circulating on social media and events which occur in other jurisdictions have fuelled this erroneous notion.”
Mr Wolffe added: “An example of this is the wrong belief that young Black males are being incarcerated for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
“The statistics simply do not show this.
“To the contrary, magistrates have on their own volition either conditionally discharged such offenders – and therefore they have no criminal conviction – or have dealt with them in a way which does not involve imprisonment.
“So for many years magistrates have been decriminalising the use of marijuana.”
The Government decriminalised possession of less than seven grams of cannabis in 2017.
The World Prison Brief, run by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, also showed a downward trend for Bermuda.
Its website said the prison population rate for Bermuda was 508 per 100,000 people in 2003.
The figure was 275 per 100,000 people by 2018.
Mr Wolffe said that “more can be done”, including better resourcing for treatment providers and the creation of a secure halfway house to help prisoners reintegrate into society.
He added that magistrates could be given “wider statutory powers to expunge certain types of offences for persons who have made a concerted and successful effort to rehabilitate themselves”.
Mr Wolffe, who became senior magistrate in 2014, said that Magistrates’ Court had steered people away from the criminal justice system.
He explained: “When dealing with offenders, magistrates will only impose a period of imprisonment after giving careful and thorough consideration to all other sanctions or sentences available in law and only after having regard to the specific circumstances which are pertinent to the case and to the individual.
“So, whereas in the past offenders may have been imprisoned, for at least the last ten years they have been given community-based sentences such as probation.”
Mr Wolffe added: “This allows them to be integrated into the community so that they may not only address any behavioural, psychological, vocational, educational, or substance abuse issues that they may have, but so that they may also pay their debt to society through community service or paying restitution to their victims.
“Additionally, for quite some time magistrates have been giving persons conditional discharges for low level offences, which effectively means that they do not receive a criminal conviction.
“Magistrates are acutely aware that a conviction, particularly in Bermuda, can carry debilitating repercussions for an offender’s employment prospects and that it can lead to them being placed on the ‘stop list’ which will certainly stifle any educational or sporting aspirations that they may have.”
Mr Wolffe said that the Magistrates’ Court’s “overriding objective of applying therapeutic jurisprudence” led to the creation of specialist of drug treatment, mental health treatment and driving under the influence courts.
He added: “Not only do these treatment courts divert persons away from prison and provide them with the tools to deal with their underlying issues, but if they successfully complete the programme, their convictions are expunged.”
Mr Wolffe said: “Since the inception of Drug Treatment Court in 2001 at least 75 per cent of those who complete the programme have not committed any further offences.
“The other treatment courts share the same statistics.”
Mr Wolffe explained: “Those who commit criminal offences come with a myriad of complexities, idiosyncrasies and criminogenic needs and any sentence that is given by magistrates must reflect that.
“Of course there should be some level of consistency in the sentence, and there are some offences that will inevitably attract a custodial sentence but, at the same time, magistrates must also mete out a sentence that reduces the likelihood of offending behaviour being repeated.”
He added that alternatives to jail included absolute discharge, conditional discharge, fines, community service and probation.
Mr Wolffe said that magistrates tried to strike a balance between rehabilitation of offenders and justice for victims.
He added “While we appreciate that victims of crime can never really be compensated for the psychological and emotional impact which they suffer, through restitution orders magistrates have sought to alleviate some of their pain.
“Further, through victim impact statements victims of crime have the opportunity to inform magistrates of the impact which the crime had on their lives and such information can be taken into consideration when sentencing the offender.
“In our experience, most victims of crime want to see the offender take reasonable steps towards being rehabilitated so that no one else may be victimised like them.”
Mr Wolffe said it was “gratifying” to hear from people who were doing well after they were given alternative sentences.
He added: “Many of them have gone on to become law-abiding citizens who are fulfilling their career goals and whose families unconditionally trust them.
“One of the many examples is the person who over two decades was a prolific housebreaker and as a result found himself in a spiral of committing offences and incarceration.
“I gave him the opportunity for the first time to address the root causes of his behaviour and over the past eight years he has not committed any further offences.
“He brims with pride when he tells me that for his job he carries around over 20 keys for businesses which have entrusted him to secure their premises.”