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PLP MP calls for lengthy sentences for drug kingpins

Kingpin drug dealers should perhaps be locked up with no prospect of early release from prison, new Parole Board chairman Ashfield DeVent has suggested.

Mr DeVent, who is also a Progressive Labour Party MP and a former court reporter for Defontes Broadcasting, has been vocal in the past about decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis.

However, he feels equally strongly that those at the heart of the drug trade must face tough consequences.

“I’ve constantly spoken of how illegal substances play a role in almost all crime that takes place in the Country. We have to take a long hard look at how we treat drugs going forwards.

“There’s been some suggestion that those caught for possession with intent to supply should not be eligible for parole and should have to serve the whole term,” he said. “It’s an idea I would like to see us collectively consider.”

Mr DeVent said his concern with the current system is that drug kingpins are still eligible for parole part-way through their jail sentence just like those caught for lesser crimes.

“If you get someone caught with a lot of drugs and money and they serve a third of a short sentence, is that really going to be a deterrent for a young person out there who sees the money to be made?” he questioned.

In his view, supplying drugs is “just a step below murder because of what it creates within society and how it destroys families and creates the mindset that becomes the murderer of the future”.

Shortly after Mr DeVent’s appointment was announced, Minister of Justice Kim Wilson announced sweeping changes to the Island’s parole system.

Sen Wilson said new legislation will introduce tiered sentencing, as well as tiered criteria for parole eligibility.

The board will continue to deal with offenders who have been sentenced to up to four years’ imprisonment, but for those incarcerated for longer periods, a Re-Entry Court alone will determine if an offender merits parole.

As an example, Sen Wilson said, an individual imprisoned for two years, with no aggravating features such as violence attending the original offence, and who has completed all mandatory programmes, will become eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentence.

However, for sentences of five or more years, with aggravating features such as violence, theft or robbery, parole will not be offered until inmates have served two-thirds of their sentence.

The news was welcomed by Mr DeVent, who anticipates that the legislation to effect the changes will be tabled in the next session of Parliament.

“Myself and the board are in full favour of them,” said Mr DeVent. “It should please the public because they won’t see people getting released after one-third of the sentence.”

Sen Wilson and Minister of National Security Wayne Perinchief also spoke late last year of a closer working relationship to be forged between the police and the Parole Board to ensure the board considers any gang involvement the offender had before imprisonment.

And, said Mr Perinchief, police and probation officers would start making spot checks on offenders on parole or probation.

Mr DeVent said of the closer working relationship: “That hasn’t come into full play.

“We are beginning to see some indications from the police (as to) if the person is believed to be a gang member or not, but it presents some challenges as well because we have a lawyer on the board and lawyers want to see some level of proof. The allegation someone is a kingpin or big gang member is fine, but the board has to act on factual information.”

He went on to stress that people are not automatically granted parole when they apply.

“We have denied quite a few people, usually on the basis of their presentation. Not everyone who comes gets it and I think it’s important to get the message out to those inmates that it’s definitely a privilege and not a right.”

Asked if he believes the parole system works as it should, he replied: “Yes. I think the public will jump to conclusions and when high profile cases are in the press they form their own opinions.”

However, he said, he Parole Board does “not make the decisions lightly”.

He added: “We have to be very careful not to become too punitive. As much as people say ‘hang them, string them up, electrocute them’, the statistics show it doesn’t work.

“The US executes more people than anywhere in the civilised world and they have one of the highest murder rates. It’s not just about locking people up. As a society we have to reach that balance. People have gone through the parole system and done well.”

One of the restrictions placed on parolees is that they are banned from taking drugs and drinking alcohol. As part of his commitment to being open and honest with inmates, Mr DeVent this week took a drug test and got a certificate to prove he is clean.

“I think a huge percentage of the community uses cannabis and it’s almost culturally acceptable among the younger generation, and some seem to indicate it’s almost impossible for them to live a normal life without it or indeed to quit,” he explained.

“They believe a lot of those in authority do it and don’t get caught and they challenge us on it.

“I smoked marijuana and there came a time in my life with responsibilities and getting older and I had to stop and I have been able to.

“I wanted to set an example as I don’t want to be seen asking anybody to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself.”

Factfile: What is the Parole Board?

There are five members of the Parole Board. They decide whether a prisoner should be allowed early release from prison and review cases where prisoners have breached their parole.

The current board is comprised of chairman Ashfield DeVent, a PLP MP and former journalist, Tim Marshall, a lawyer, Jeremy Lodge, a psychologist, Ed Dyer, a former Commissioner of Prisons and Larry Smith, former head of the police narcotics unit.

The board considers up to 16 different reports when deciding whether a prisoner should be released before the end of their sentence.

These include reports on their behaviour in prison, their own personal representations to the board, medical reports, substance abuse reports and psychological and psychiatric reports.

The board can also bear in mind a summary of evidence about the crime from the time of the court case, statements from the victims about the impact it had, and even a report from the prison chaplain.

The applicant also has to undergo a face to face interview with the board and prove they have a job, a place to live and an appropriate “support system” waiting for them if they are released.

The board can also impose a number of conditions on prisoners once they are released.

They must appear before the board whenever required and can be made subject to curfews and mandatory drug testing.

They must not commit any other offence or leave the Island without consent.

They must also refrain from alcohol and drugs and can be ordered to participate in programmes such as anger management and drug treatment.

They can also be ordered to refrain from associating with persons or going to places that could lead to illegal activities.

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Published March 28, 2012 at 9:55 am (Updated March 28, 2012 at 9:55 am)

PLP MP calls for lengthy sentences for drug kingpins

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