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Trinidad-model plea deal legislation seeks to ease Guyana’s backlog of criminal cases, reduce prison population

Last Updated on Tuesday, 27 June 2023, 18:37 by Denis Chabrol

Guyana is borrowing Trinidad and Tobago’s plea bargaining legislation, aimed at facilitating discussions between prosecutors and offenders to ease the backlog of criminal cases and reduce the prison population, authorities said.

“Its primary intent is to provide the opportunity for prosecutors and accused persons to meet under specific circumstances and negotiate a settlement acceptable to the principles of justice,” the Attorney General’s Chambers said on Tuesday.

Official figures show that Guyana has an average prison population of 2,213 persons with a further average breakdown of 1,170 convicts; 647 on remand including 188 appellants and 351 awaiting trial. Prison experts explained that the “average” prison population, including those on remand, is determined by the fact that twice as much were being admitted than were being discharged and the number of convicted persons was increasing and decreasing at the same time.

The Attorney General’s Chambers said the draft Criminal Procedure (Plea Discussion and Plea Agreement) Bill seeks to repeal the Criminal Procedure (Plea Bargaining and Plea Agreement) Act, Cap 10:09 and re-enact legislation.

The new legislation, government said, would address the gaps in the current law to effectively fast-track criminal proceedings, protect the rights of the individual and ensure that accused persons face penalties proportionate to the crimes committed.

The Attorney General’s Chambers said that in April, 2023, it invited comments in writing on the draft Criminal Procedure (Plea Discussion and Plea Agreement) Bill. Submissions were solicited from the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), the Office of the Police Legal Advisor, the Guyana Bar Association, the Berbice Bar Association, and the Law Reform Commission.

Former Eastern Caribbean and British Virgin Islands judge, Guyanese Dharshan Ramdhani told a weekend lecture and panel discussion by the Caribbean Court of Justice on the topic, “Re-Thinking Criminal Justice”, that Guyana’s draft plea legislation was “following the Trinidad model”. “One of the significant things this plea bargaining is doing, and I think we’re learning from Trinidad here in this regard, because the Trinidad old Plea Bargaining Act was similar to the present Guyana Plea Bargaining legislation and what happened was the prosecutors could not quite get comfortable with the agreements that they can come to,” said Mr Ramdhani who is a project consultant for the Attorney General’s Chambers and Ministry of Legal Affairs.

Mr Ramdhani said the prosecutors and the judiciary in Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago are “under immense public pressure” by the media and Social Media, often making it easier for the judges and juries to decide on trial rather than face criticisms from plea bargaining and discussions. He said American and British legal experts have concluded that Trinidad and Tobago’s plea bargaining act complies with English Common Law standards “so we haven’t gone totally American.”

Assuming that the draft legislation is passed by government’s simple parliamentary majority, plea discussions can be held and plea agreements can be concluded at any time before conviction including before charges are instituted. However, the Director of Public Prosecutions would first have to give written permission before a prosecutor begins discussions and reaches agreement.

If the accused person has a lawyer, the law states that no such plea discussions should be held in the absence of a lawyer. Further the intended Act requires the prosecutor to inform the accused person or suspect of certain rights including the right to be represented by a lawyer.

The Bill also imposes a duty on the prosecutor to provide the suspect or accused person with a written summary of the evidence against the suspect or accused person in circumstances where plea discussions are initiated before charges are laid, as well as in circumstances where plea discussions are initiated after charges are laid respectively.

According to the Bill’s explanatory memorandum, the prosecutor is required to inform the victim that he or she has a right to provide an impact statement and can have certain aspects included. If the victim is dead or sick, a representative could also provide such a statement. Similarly, representatives of businesses could provide statements about the impact of crimes during a plea discussion.

Should a plea agreement be filed before or during the conduct of committal proceedings but before an accused is committed to stand trial in the High Court, the Magistrate shall cease conduct of the committal proceedings and order that the plea agreement hearing be
transferred to the High Court for determination.

The Director of Public Prosecutions will enjoy the right to appeal to the Guyana Court of Appeal if the High Court throws out the plea agreement.

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June 2023