Big reduction in prison time for guilty pleas - [part one]

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January 25, 2016

By virtue of the Criminal Justice (Administration) (Amendment) Act, 2015 and the Judicature (Appellate Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Act, 2015, both of which came into force on November 30, 2015, many convicted persons serving long prison sentences may be in for a nice gift for 2016. This is so because these statutes now provide for the reduction of sentences on guilty pleas and the Court of Appeal is empowered to review the prescribed minimum sentences (or sentences fixed by law) imposed by a court below, albeit in limited circumstances.

Excluded from this bounty are those persons who are convicted of capital murder or those who have pleaded guilty to non-capital murder and have received the statutory

minimum of 15 years.

The provisions for reduction of sentences are specifically outlined in the Criminal Justice (Administration) (Amendment) Act, 2015 [hereinafter called 'the Act'], which essentially provides that where the defendant pleads guilty to an offence, the court may reduce the sentence that would otherwise have been imposed in the following manner: (a) a 50 per cent reduction where, on the first relevant date, the defendant indicates to the court that he wishes to plead guilty to the offence; (b) a 35 per cent reduction where, after the relevant date but before trial, the defendant indicates that he wishes to plead guilty to the offence and (c) a 15 per cent reduction where, after the trial commenced but before the verdict, the defendant pleads guilty to the offence.

The 'first relevant date' means the first date on which an accused person, who is represented by an attorney-at-law or who elects not to be represented by an attorney-at-law, is brought before the court after the judge is satisfied that the prosecution has made adequate disclosure to the accused of the case against him in respect of the offences for which he is charged.

Except in the case of murder, the court has powers upon a plea of guilty to reduce the sentence below the minimum period outlined by law. The court must, however, specify the period that the accused should serve before becoming eligible for parole, it being not less than two-thirds of the sentence imposed.

In the case of non-capital murder, where an accused person pleads guilty, the court may reduce the sentence that it would have otherwise imposed on the him or her, but the court shall not impose a sentence that is less than the minimum penalty fixed by law.

Where the offence to which an accused pleads guilty is one for which the court may impose a sentence of life imprisonment, then for the purpose of calculating a reduction of sentence in accordance with the Act, a term of life imprisonment shall be deemed to be 30 years.

Interestingly, too, both the prosecution and the defence may make submissions to the court relating to the issue of sentence reduction; and the court must, in making a determination in relation to sentencing, give consideration to the submissions.

These pieces of legislation, if used effectively, should have a positive impact on the administration of justice by assisting in the reduction of the crippling back-log of cases.

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