Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Prisons system faces review

ROBERT MATAU
www.fijitimes.com - Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fiji's prisons are overcrowded, a recent study featured last week in this column said.

The study warned if the overcrowding and the lack of staff and resources were not addressed the system could breakdown.

One of the areas looked at in the report, compiled by the Australia-Fiji Community Justice Sector program in March, 2006, was how a problem solving court would be developed and shortly be piloted in selected areas.

It adds a customary and traditional flavour to the sentencing of Fijian people in an alternative disciplinary measure more understanding of their culture.

"The aim of this new style of court is to identify and address the problems that are causing offending behaviour and to treat the cause so that criminal behaviour stops," the report said.

"Called Problem Solving Courts, they are for sentencing only. That is, they are not trial courts.

"Aimed primarily at reducing the number of young indigenous Fijians and other young people from entering the prison system unnecessarily, the court adopts approaches that are part of Fijian culture (veisorosorovi) but operate within the mainstream legal system.

"Advisers from the communities will sit with the magistrate and advise on particular issues for the offender and suggest remedies.

"Wherever possible, the advisers will be from the same community as the offender and will bring their connection to those communities and make the sentences imposed by the magistrate more meaningful to the offender.

"The courts will combine punishment with help and can be the gateway to treatment and rehabilitation.

"The courts will operate in urban and rural areas and victims will be able to put their issues before the court and be heard. Except when operating as a Juvenile Court, the court will be open and transparent to the community at large."

The report said that in appropriate situation (e.g. village settings) the court can be much less formal than most magistrates courts.

In that case the report said a formal court setting would not be required; the village hall could be used. "Unlike the normal court setting everyone will be allowed to speak. It may be that the chiefs or leaders from other communities will sit with the magistrate and this will assist in re-engaging approaches to traditional dispute resolution with mainstream justice," the report says.

"It is an approach that aims to encourage respect, commitment and obligation and aims to reinforce the Fijian tradition of caring for others in the community.

"The focus will be on diversion, treatment and rehabilitation and keeping people out of prison if this is possible and appropriate.

"Serious offences will not be dealt with by the Problem Solving Court. Problem Solving Courts have the full support and endorsement of the Great Council of Chiefs.

"It is generally accepted that offenders placed on properly administered community-based programs (particularly probation and community work) have a much higher rate of success than similar offenders serving short prison sentences and this presents as the most effective way of reducing the prison numbers and affords the greatest possibility of rehabilitation.

"Although some short- term prison sentences are inevitable, the community will be better served if the majority were placed on non-custodial sentences. (Some jurisdictions have passed legislation restricting the use of short sentences in order to force courts to use community based alternatives)."

The report said if all prisoners serving less than three months in 2005 were given community sentences instead of jail time, prison intake would have been reduced by almost 30 per cent.

"If this were extended to sentences of less than nine months the intake would have dropped by 50 per cent without any appreciable impact on community safety," it states.

"Through the Law and Justice Strategic Leadership Group the Ministry for Justice and the Ministry for Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation (that has statutory responsibility for Probation and Community Work) have joined with the ministries of youth, employment opportunities and sport, Fijian affairs and provincial development, and other stakeholders, to develop a model system that will allow community based corrections to expand to all areas of Fiji.

"The new model is being piloted in selected locations before its introduction to the remainder of the country.

"Although the model will cater for all ages and races it specifically targets indigenous Fijian offenders aged 25 years and less."

The report says increasing community based court dispositions will eventually lower the number of people entering the prison system and will allow the prison service to devote its resources to address the rehabilitation needs of longer term prisoners.

It noted a 35 per cent increase in the number of prisoners aged 25 years or less and this group now makes up almost 50 per cent of the prison population.

"The increase in the number of young prisoners entering the system is cause for some concern, particularly as 32 per cent were imprisoned for the first time," the report says. "Providing programs for young people in prison presents its own challenges.

"It is known that young people are less mature and more easily influenced by their older counterparts. Prisons, particularly overcrowded ones with poor living conditions, tend to be criminogenic, that is, they are more likely to support and reinforce criminal values and lifestyles than promote personal development and rehabilitation.

"Offenders aged 25 and under are responsible for 57 percent of all violent offences, including rape and indecent assault.

"They are responsible for 67 per cent of all non-violent offences, and offences against property. "Without proper programs the prospect of rehabilitation for many in this group is not good."

It noted the rise in the number of young people sentenced for sexual and other violent offences against the person was a cause for concern, particularly as there were no specialist remedial or intervention programs available in Fiji prisons for this type of offending.

"These groups potentially pose the greatest concern to the community if their offending behaviour is perceived not to have been addressed while they are in prison," the report states.

"However, the majority of prisoners convicted of violent offences do not fall into the ├Žextremely serious' category and programs that deal with impulse control, anger management and cognitive skill development, along with other rehabilitation and personal development programs that address the causes of offending, are possible to be delivered and would maximises the chances of offenders' successful integration into the community.

"In 2005 an extraordinary 67 per cent of all prisoners entered the prison system for the first time (compared to 52 per cent in 2002). Figures for both years are extremely high and suggest major issues in sentencing practices and highlight the need for more suitable non-custodial sentencing options."

For now these recommendations and conclusions hold a way out for our prisons system — ultimately at the tail end of the criminal justice system.

Whether there is a will to carry out the changes and recommendations will be a matter for the policy makers to decide.

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