Fifty-five men on remand for murder, rape and armed robbery yesterday indicated their willingness to plead guilty to their crimes.
The men, who agreed to participate in a pilot project aimed at reducing backlogs in the criminal justice system, indicated their intention during a special hearing before Justice Gillian Lucky in the Port-of-Spain High Court.
While addressing the participants, Lucky repeatedly said the project sought to improve accused persons’ access to justice.
“This is just to give you the status you need to access the justice you want and require,”Lucky told the men.
The initiative began several months ago as the T&T Prison Service distributed flyers to the remand inmates across the country who were awaiting trial in the High Court. The project applies to inmates who are not allowed bail for their offences, who were denied bail or have been unable to access it.
The project sought inmates who were willing to plead guilty to their alleged crimes or who desired Maximum Sentence Indications (MSIs). Through MSIs, judges indicate the maximum sentence an accused person would receive if they elect to plead guilty to a crime and avoid a trial. Accused who plead guilty are afforded an automatic one-third discount on their sentences.
During yesterday’s hearing, Lucky sought to manage the cases of an initial group of 55 men who agreed to participate. Lucky dealt with each case individually and requested that each man explain the reason for their participation.
“I am guilty and I want to know the balance of the sentence I have to serve,” one man, who is awaiting trial for having sex with a minor, said.
His response was mirrored by his fellow inmates when given their turn.
Lucky then enquired if each man had an attorney. Those who were without one were immediately registered with the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority by an official present in court. She then enquired as to the status of the filing of the indictments against them by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
The filing of indictments in the High Court is a major cause of delay in the criminal justice system, as the procedure is required to have the case listed for trial before a judge and jury. The inefficiency usually stems from delays in the transferring of evidence from accused persons’ preliminary inquiries to the DPP’s Office, which is required to file the indictments.
Lucky yesterday requested the status of the process in each case and asked prosecutors from the DPP’s Office to expedite the filing of the indictments where possible. She said once the men are assigned attorneys and the indictments filed, the cases will be transferred to other criminal judges who would accept guilty pleas and sentence the accused men or perform MSIs.
Lucky advised each person they were free to change their position at any point in time before sentencing.
“Nobody is under pressure or is forced to participate. If you wish to change your mind at any point in time you are free to do so,” Lucky said.
Lucky also praised the Prison Service and the Court and Process Branch of the T&T Police Service (TTPS) for supporting and facilitating the project.
Lucky adjourned the cases to October 11, when a next status hearing will be held.
During the hearing, defence attorney Rekha Ramjit, who is representing some of the men, agreed to represent some of those without attorneys.
While Ramjit described the initiative as an “excellent approach”, she noted that more effort was needed to educate inmates as she was contacted by some murder accused who were ineligible to participate.
Ramjit noted that only inmates who were being prosecuted for felony murder are allowed, as the mandatory death penalty for murder is waived in such cases where death results in the commission of a lesser criminal offence.
The T&T Guardian understands that another batch of remand inmates are expected to participate next Tuesday.