Kudos to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court for introducing its first set of sentencing guidelines.
The new system should help ensure that justice is administered fairly and consistently in the Virgin Islands and across the ECSC member states.
For too long in the territory, discrepancies between the penalties levied for similar crimes have raised troubling questions. In one recent case, for example, a public outcry arose after a man was sentenced to less than seven years for killing his wife in front of their children. Other killers, of course, have received sentences several times longer.
Punishments for drug and gun crimes, as well as many other offences of varied seriousness, have also ranged widely over the years.
Sometimes, the variations seem to be linked to a particular personality. Magistrates and judges often serve only for a short time here, and some have been extremely lenient, others extremely strict.
Without a consistent system in place, such issues are not particularly surprising: Given the geographical barriers between islands, it must be difficult for judges to keep track of jurisdictions where they are not currently serving.
The new guidelines doubtlessly will help ensure that judges are on the same page not only in the VI but across the ECSC. Accordingly, the system should also help improve the public’s confidence in the courts and increase transparency.
The ECSC, however, should not stop there. The first set of guidelines includes parameters for theft, robbery, rape and drug offences, but more are promised. We hope they come soon.
We also hope that VI judges and magistrates will use the new system consistently, and publicly explain their reasoning in detail when they do.
Other complementary steps are also needed. To that end, there are a few easy wins that would make a big difference. The VI courts, for instance, should publish their schedules online, and they should stick to them. Additionally, records of proceedings both for the Magistrates’ and High courts should be easily searchable by the public.
The courts should also work much more closely with police and prosecutors to streamline existing procedures so that far fewer cases are delayed due to bureaucratic hiccups.
Such reforms might be somewhat expensive up front, but ultimately they could save millions of dollars over the long term in addition to greatly strengthening the justice system.
We hope, then, that the new sentencing guidelines will prove to be part of larger reform efforts at all levels of the territory’s courts. Justice in the territory depends on it.