20-year minimum sentence for children who commit murder

Education and Youth Minister Fayval Williams has chastised law makers for being too soft on the sentencing of people who commit murder, including children aged 14 to 17.

Williams made this admonishment as she voiced her disagreement with the majority of legislators who have accepted the proposal that children convicted of capital murder should serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.

She is of the view that this sentence is too lenient and should be moved to 30 years, arguing that at the ages of 14 to 17, the child is “on the doorsteps of being an adult [and should know] right from wrong”.

This matter of minimum sentencing for children falls under the Child Care and Protection (Amendment) Act, which is being reviewed by a joint select committee of Parliament.

Speaking at the committee’s meeting on Tuesday, Williams said that while the figures for children in the age range of 14 to 17 who commit capital murder may seem like a small percentage, “remember, it’s what it is today; we don’t know five years, 10 years down the line what it will be and we continue to be very soft in our sentencing of people who have committed heinous crimes”.

“You cannot imagine the pain of the parent who lost her daughter because the child in this age range brought an implement to school, stabbed her and killed her. And we’re sitting here being really, really soft and not sending the strong message that we are not going to tolerate crime in this country,” she said.

In response, chairman of the committee, Delroy Chuck, said the committee has agreed that the sentence for capital murder for children can be life imprisonment or 50 years.

“That person may well never see road again. If they get life or 50 years, they may not see road again until they’re 64 [years old] — if they get life,” he said.

“What parole offers is that after 20 years or 30 years, as you suggest, that they are a different person from when they entered the prison, they could be allowed to continue their sentence up to 50 if they got the determinate sentence or continue the rest of their life, serving their sentence in the community,” he said.

Chuck further noted that at any time, should they breach the parole conditions, they could immediately be returned to prison.

“Why I would favour a lesser term [is] because, remember, for adults, we have said… even if you get paroled, it’s not before 40 years. But for a child of tender 14 to 17, we hope, say, within 20 years, it’s a different person who would still be serving the sentence in the community; and in the unfortunate situation they breach the Parole Act, they’re back in the prison, so they’re really serving their sentence in the community.

“The good thing about parole is that most parolees are aware that the slightest breach, they’re back in custody, and that is why you have almost a 90 per cent success for parole because they are constantly checked on by social workers,” he said.

Opposition committee member Donna Scott Mottley argued for an even lesser sentence of a minimum 10 years before being eligible for parole. She pointed out that she has taken into account all the submissions, including the view that incarceration is not what is advisable for children.

“I have taken note of what I observe happening in the society where children really seem to have not got any values, any attitudes, any space in which they have grown to have an opinion as to what is proper conduct in certain circumstances,” she said.

Scott Mottley said she has also taken into account the fact that experts have said that at that age, children are rarely able to make a considered decision; they don’t evaluate it to know right or wrong.

“The minister, who has control of this Bill, is determined to send a very strong signal to the society, but I also think that one must consider that sometimes they are not the ones who have created their own circumstances. In fact, the society contributes very heavily towards the kind of child, the kind of Jamaican that we are producing,” she said.

Scott Mottley’s Opposition colleague, Sophia Fraser Binns, agreed with the 10-year minimum sentence.

At the end of the meeting, the majority of the committee agreed that children, aged 14 to 17 and charged with capital murder, will face life imprisonment or a minimum determinate sentence of 50 years; and in both cases, no parole before 20 years.

The majority of the committee further proposed that for non-capital murder, the sentence would either be life imprisonment or 30 years determinate sentence. The minimum mandatory sentence before parole is 15 years.