US Supreme Court: One Less Known Example of How a Supreme Court Decision, Shapes Up Judiciary Reality in the Caribbean

April 15th, 2016

by Robert Pantzer


“These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. What distinguishes many convicts is a lack of support and second chances.”   Barack Obama

Not too long a time ago, the 2011 “Brown v. Plata” sharply split 5:4 the US Supreme Court, when it affirmed a lower court case ruling that the California corrections system was violating civil rights laws and therefore was violating the Eighth Amendment which provides a constitutional guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishments.” The Supreme Court Decision had to be carried out at the State and Governor’s level.[1]

While in his first term as governor of California, in 1976 “Jerry” Brown Jr. signed into law the “determinate” sentencing bill that set fixed lengths of time that had to be served before an inmate could be considered for parole. Now, almost 40 years later, Governor Brown has announced he’ll work to get a ballot initiative before state voters in November 2016 to undo parts of the law he signed, allowing earlier parole eligibility and consideration of a prisoner’s behavior behind bars. In making his announcement, Brown estimated the change could give new hope of early release to thousands of prisoners now incarcerated.

But what was decided at the Supreme Court level and translated into a new incarceration policy at the US state level is receiving more and more attention in the Caribbean and Latin American countries. The penitentiaries in those countries are actually plagued by the same issues as their equivalents in the US.

The tranquil country of The Commonwealth of Bahamas: a tourist destination, which is renowned for year round sunshine and beautiful beaches, is becoming more known for high levels of crime. The Bahamas is also home to a large prison population relative to global levels. Currently, the country’s incarceration rate is 379 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is significantly higher than the average global incarceration rate of 144 per 100,000. At 162.4% of their capacity, Bahamian prisons hold approximately 1,506 inmates at an annual cost of US$14,000 per inmate. Forty-two percent of prisoners have not been convicted of a crime but are being held while awaiting trial.

Part of the problem is that The Bahamas sends a high number of nonviolent, low-level drug and property offenders to prison and keeps them there. When they are released, many are not assisted with rebuilding their lives, so they quickly return to crime, ending up behind bars again and costing the state more money. The government has acknowledged that by just locking away young individuals, for crimes associated with drug use and firearm possession will not solve the problem. This is the reason why the Bahamian government, seconded by the Inter-American Development Bank, hosted on February 4 and 5, in Nassau a round table comprised of international experts to discuss new ways to address the penitentiary situation by rolling out a new parole system.

As stated by the Ministry of National Security, The Hon. B.J. Nottage, in his opening remarks for this event, “Guns, drugs and gangs are the triad in our country today. Approximately 24 percent of convicted inmates upon their release will be convicted for a second crime”. The roundtable of experts in Nassau was just the beginning of a greater debate aiming at a draft law for a parole system in The Bahamas. Hopefully this draft legislation will be produced before the end of the year as an important step on the path of ultimately making hundreds of incarcerated people eligible for parole.

Finally, cutting the non-violent prison population, the same argument as used in the US around this subject, will save the Bahamian people in prison operating costs. The savings could be spent on the re-entry programs and on keeping violent and other high-risk offenders behind bars. Such re-entry system may have the potential to reduce crime while also offering a better return on public safety dollars — a unique combination. As this debate kicks off, it is important to educate and engage the public who might be resistant to these changes for the wrong reasons. If the Bahamian people desire a tough but strategic stance on crime, then this is a wise way to go.


[1] The alleged deficiencies included inadequate medical screening of incoming prisoners; delays in or failure to provide access to medical care, including specialist care; untimely responses to medical emergencies; the failure to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of competent medical staff; disorganized and incomplete medical records; a “lack of quality control procedures, including lack of physician peer review, quality assurance and death reviews”; a lack of protocols to deal with chronic illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, hepatitis, and HIV; and the failure of the administrative grievance system to provide timely or adequate responses to complaints concerning medical care.

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