Community service to be added in new Penal Code

PHILIPSBURG--Changes to the Penal Code will bring about the abolition of capital punishment, introduce community service and regulate early release from prison via the parole board without interference from the Justice Minister.

The proposed changes to the Penal Code are under review by Members of Parliament and the Bar Association's opinion was sought in a Central Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon. The proposed changes were inherited from the former Netherlands Antilles.

Bar Association President Remco Stomp and board member attorney Geert Hatzmann presented the attorneys' view on the changes. They were asked, on the request of independent MP Frans Richardson, to submit their views to Parliament in writing.

Stomp said the changes "keep the good and get rid of the bad," such as the abolition of capital punishment, which is still on the books, in favour of life sentences for criminal offences warranting this. A judge would have the choice of a 30-year sentence or true lifelong punishment depending on the crime.

Another change would bring into effect community service as a punishment option by itself to be used by the judge. In the present code, community service is only given in conjunction with a prison sentence. This change was applauded by the Bar Association.

Stomp sees this as a way to keep youngsters in particular out of the "best universities for crime" – prison. Seeing that the country has no youth detention/correctional facility, "it is better to give community service." He urged government to look into re-socialisation for youngsters and to provide jobs.

Hatzmann agreed, saying it was good to give youngsters a second chance. He further commended the law writer for adding specific youth regulations, including a maximum punishment of 24 months for minor crimes and four years for serious offences. However, youngsters ages 16-17 can have adult sentences imposed on them in certain cases.

Judge in cases involving the youth also will focus on ways to help youngsters reform. They will be punished, but still will be offered a second chance. "We can't just lock them up and throw away the key."

Early release

The regularisation of the early release programme for prisoners is also welcomed. The proposal makes all prisoners eligible for a one-third reduction of their sentences, unless there are strong indications that the prisoner has not reformed and is not participating in a reformation programme. Stomp called this approach "a little more efficient" especially because the Justice Minister cannot overrule the parole board.

While the Bar Association welcomes most of the changes, there are serious concerns about the so-called "emergency" legislation. This law change will allow the early release of prisoners who have served most of their sentences if the prison is considered "fully packed."

Stomp said in practice this change had the potential of putting murderers and rapists back on the streets, because the law does not make a distinction about what types of criminals will be let out early.

While the Bar Association is not happy, it understands the situation. Stomp added that although the association accepted the regulation, Parliament was urged to find a real solution to the prison capacity issue. "Give real instruments to the [Justice] Minister."

Revised maximum sentences

The maximum sentences for several offences have been revised. In cases of abduction, the maximum sentence will be increased from six to nine years. Stalking is better defined and the difference between it and ill-treatment is clearer. Stalking would carry a maximum sentence of four years.

The changes to the Penal Code also differentiate between manslaughter and murder. On the sentencing side, a judge can give a maximum of 24 years for manslaughter and 30 years (temporary life sentence) or a true life sentence for murder. Under the current code, manslaughter and murder are treated the same way.

Theft with use of violence will have a maximum of a 12-year punishment, cutting in half the current 24-year maximum. If the crime involves aggressive circumstances, an additional 15 years can be added and if the crime results in a death the sentence would include another 18-year punishment maximum.

The Bar Association does not agree with Justice Minister Roland Duncan about special sentencing for crimes against tourists.

Less time for foreigners

A controversial aspect of the code changes is the release of foreigners after one-third of their sentences has been completed if the punishment is less than five years. However, if it is more than five years, the full term would have to be served.

Hatzmann said this was seen as fair and more balanced because the punishment for foreigners was "more severe" because they could not have visitors, for example, as readily as people who are residents here. This caused much discussion between MPs and the Bar Association representatives, because some MPs saw this as opening up the country to foreign criminals.

Hatzmann explained that the law was clear about who is a foreigner or a resident. Anyone who has been living in the country – legally or illegally – for more than a year is not considered a foreigner.

Alcohol control

A reckless drunk driver can be sentenced to a maximum of nine years, a great increase from the two-year maximum sentence on the books now.

Hatzmann said he fully agreed with the increase in the penalty for drunk driving. He added his surprise at the lack of alcohol controls in the country while youngsters found with "a little marijuana" can spend extended time in jail.

He said if someone wanted to smoke marijuana that was their choice and the country was facing more issues with people behind the wheel who were intoxicated. "Why are we so lenient with alcohol abuse?"

MP Dr. Lloyd Richardson agreed that alcohol abuse "sometimes causes more problems" than marijuana. However, he sees marijuana as a cause of psychosis and put Hatzmann's comments down to cultural differences between the Caribbean and the Dutch. Stomp said he did not agree with that view.

On the second agenda point on changes to the Civil Code, Stomp said the association concurred with the position of the Notaries Association on the topic of inheritances and legacies, because the notaries worked with those rules regularly.

(The Daily Herald)

22 February 2012

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