The government is moving to remove custodial sentences for non-violent minor offences including attempt to commit suicide and criminal defamation by amending the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, Cap. 8.02.
The Legal Affairs Ministry made the announcement on Monday, hours after the Attorney General and Legal Affairs Minister, Basil Williams and his team met with Peter Pursglove S.C, a consultant contracted under the Support for the Criminal Justice System Programme (SCJS).
Pursglove will be reviewing the existing legislation, and propose recommendations of amendments for the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act, Cap. 8.02. “It is envisaged that these proposed amendments will include the decriminalisation of some current offences and the recommendation of alternatives to imprisonment in respect of certain summary offences, particularly those of a minor and non-violent nature. These objectives will be achieved through both amendments to existing legislation and the drafting of entirely new legislation,” the Legal Affairs Ministry explained.
During the meeting, it was agreed that the criminal law of Guyana contains several categories of offences that, in other jurisdictions, have now been decriminalised. In Guyana, these offences carry a sentence of imprisonment if found guilty. In citing examples, the Legal Affairs Ministry pointed to offences concerning roguery and vagabondage, vagrancy, obeah and witchcraft, incorrigible roguery, attempt to commit suicide and criminal defamation that are now decriminalised, in whole or in part, in many jurisdictions thus reducing rates of imprisonment.
“In such cases, decriminalising the behaviour and dealing with it outside the criminal law has not resulted in any negative impact on public safety. Other offences may no longer warrant the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment and may now be dealt with by way of fine or other non-custodial sanctions,” the ministry said.
The Attorney General, in a brief comment, said a prison sentence is usually an inappropriate sanction, especially for non-violent minor offences. In other jurisdictions, various alternatives have been implemented such as bail, seizure of travel documents, periodic reporting to police or other authorities, electronic monitoring or curfews, and conditional and suspended sentences. These activities are intended the impact the criminal justice system by increasing the use of alternative sentencing in the system.
Media organisations have been lobbying Guyana and other jurisdictions to abolish criminal defamation for some time now. The International Press Institute has said that criminal libel law was born in an Elizabethan England courtroom as a means for silencing critique of the privileged class. The body said a law of such antiquated ethos, has little place in modern society where the press plays a pivotal role in shaping public discourse. The IPI had been actively campaigning for the governments of the Caribbean to redress their current criminal libel laws. At present, the law is vague and open to indiscriminate and inconsistent implementation, largely wielded to quell dissent and stifle government criticism, IPI had said.
While infrequently used in the Caribbean, criminal libel statutes remain, an unnecessary resource at the disposal of any offended official, IPI said, adding that the mere threat of prosecution chills investigation and free speech, sustains corruption, unnecessarily protects public officials, and denies one of the most basic of human rights, freedom of expression. “Criminal libel is one of the most pernicious media constraints in contemporary society. Implemented at the will of any insulted public official, it frequently leaves no recourse for the defendant. In most countries, truth is not a valid defence, leaving defence a vexing proposition.”
Attempt to commit suicide
In Guyana, the PAN AMERICAN Health Organisation/World Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO) has long called for the decriminalisation of attempt to commit suicide. PAHO/WHO representatives here have underscored the need for legislative changes to be made to the Criminal Law Offences Act Cap.8:01, the Summary Jurisdiction Offences Act Cap. 8:02 and the Pesticides and Toxic Chemicals Control Act Cap, 68:09. Reference was also made to the Customs Act, the Food and Drugs Act and the Mental Hospital Ordinance Cap. 140.
Section 95 of the Criminal Law Offences Act Cap. 8:01, the PAHO/WHO representatives believe, would only fuel more suicides. According to that section, “everyone who aids or abets any person in the commission of suicide shall be guilty of felony and liable to imprisonment for life”.
Under Section 96 of the Act, anyone who attempts to commit suicide shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and liable to imprisonment for two years.