A conference in October is the latest effort by a T&T government to introduce a system of restorative justice in the country. Plans for such a system have been under consideration since the tenure of the last PNM administration and had been revived during the tenure of former justice minister Herbert Volney.
Amidst concerns that the issue is once more on the back burner, officials of the Ministry of Justice, in response to questions from the Sunday Guardian, say the upcoming conference is among several restorative justice initiatives that are being actively pursued.
"The Ministry of Justice recognises the significance of the principle of restorative justice, which speaks to the response to crime that recognises the role of the community in preventing and responding to crime and social disorder," an e-mailed response from the ministry stated.
"In addressing measures that would contribute toward the overall efficacy of the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice has embarked upon several proposals that seek to embrace various restorative initiatives that aim to encourage change in offenders and facilitate their reintegration into the community."
The ministry said the conference presents an opportunity for the exploration of a different and untraditional way of perceiving, thinking and measuring how a society wishes to respond to wrongdoing, when a crime or injustice takes place.Other initiatives include laying a Parole Bill in Parliament, implementation of an offender management system and a youth justice policy. However, no time frames have been set for implementation of these measures.
Among those calling for introduction of restorative justice in the country's penal system is newspaper columnist Debbie Jacob, a writer and teacher who has taught young men at the Youth Training Centre (YTC) and at the Royal Gaol.
Jacob said the issue of a speedy trial for young men needs to be urgently addressed, since some of them remain in remand for as long as ten years before they get a trial. For inmates at YTC, she explained, while there are many rehabilitativeprogrammes in place, preference is given to convicted young men rather those in remand.Jacob said lip service, is often paid to concepts such as restorative justice and no consideration is given to legislation that will offer equal opportunity for those in remand.
Volney, who was fired as justice minister in September 2012, said during his tenure there were several initiatives for introduction of restorative justice in T&T's penal system.He said his ministry piloted the Administration of Justice (Electronic Monitoring) Act which has since been enacted and a Parole Bill was being drafted "to allow for the re-entry of prisoners into the society at the two-thirds mark of their term of imprisonment, once the inmates satisfied the terms and conditions of restoration of themselves being offered on campus."
Volney said Cabinet had also approved a policy for establishment of a National Offenders Management Authority to implement restorative justice measures, including the hiring of offender-management professionals to manage the system. These professions were to take over the function of probation officers, Volney explained, and the probation officials would have then been returned to the Ministry of Social Development.
The former minister said new prison rules were being drafted to allow for a merit system so that after completing a restorative course, the prisoner would have been paroled and monitored via an electronic bracelet.He also said Rise Radio, which was widely discussed, was one of the measures being implemented at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca. It was being operated by Garth and Natasha St Clair. There was also discussion in 2012 about introducing cable television in prisons.
"The vision was to convert, within the walls of the prison, an inmate village, whereby more freedom of movement, airtime and sporting activities would have been given to the inmate," Volney said.Also planned were prison factories where inmates could earn an income, as well as a smart-card system that would be used by relatives of inmates to access the money and use it at a general store in the prison.
Volney said his vision was for restorative justice to be part of a paradigm shift within the prison system but that ended with his departure and "what I have heard is a concentration on building more lock-up prisons.""I wanted to create an environment to restore people to goodness. I have not seen anything to suggest, nor heard anything to suggest a more humane approach to restorative justice than envisioned," he said.
Attorney Christlyn Moore, who briefly served as justice minister after Volney's departure from September 2012 to September 2013, said in a brief phone interview that when she left office, the ministry was defining exactly what restorative justice meant to T&T.Attempts to contact recently appointed Prisons Commissioner Conrad Barrow for comment were unsuccessful.
Fitzgerald Hinds, who was a minister in the Ministry of National Security in a former PNM administration, said little progress has been made with respect to restorative justice and instead there have been backward steps which have set the system back by 15 or 20 years.
Hinds said he has spoken to senior officials in the system who told him that while conceptually the concept of restorative justice has been taken on, conditions in the prisons are exactly as they were before. He said the philosophy of restorative justice was about a lot more than improved prison conditions.Under the PNM, Hinds said, 100 acres of Caroni land, which are now being distributed under the Land for the Landless programme, had been earmarked for a modern prison that would have included a drug treatment centre.
He said current prison facilities have become revolving doors for petty offenders, whereas the PNM's plan was to offer therapeutic treatment to the offender, "make him clean, make him whole". He explained that prisons were to be reserved for the most serious offenders. Seriously infirm prisoners and those over 65 would have been assigned to live in a "low-security, dormitory-type setting," for which the lands had already been approved by Cabinet.
There were also plans for a juvenile institution like the YTC for young girls who was deemed uncontrollable by their families, so they would no longer have to be placed in the women's prison.
A 2010 brochure on the centre stated: "The Youth Training Centre is an institution which falls within the ambit of the Trinidad and Tobago Prison Service and caters for young offenders between the ages of 16 to 18 who have transgressed and sent here by the courts for a period of training in lieu of imprisonment for a period of not less than three nor more than four years.
"The institution has as its principle philosophy the process of reform and training which would enable those committed to its custody to return to and function beneficially in the society from which, by due process of law, they have been temporarily set apart."Hinds, like Volney, said prisoners would have been involved in manufacturing and would have earned money that would have gone to their families or the families of their victims. Family visits would have also been allowed.
Restorative justice, PNM-style, he said, would have brought about healing for both offender and victim."We now know that the Ministry of Justice was not established with any mobility of purpose. The Justice Ministry is languishing and is not serious about restorative justice," he said.