Letter: Guyana needs criminal justice reform now

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Dear Sir:

Larry John Adams is a 20 year old former student of School of the Nations. On February 22, Georgetown Magistrate Leron Daly sentenced him to three years in jail as well as imposed on him a $30,000 fine, after pleading guilty to possession of eight ecstasy pills. The police alleged Adams possessed the pills for trafficking. Adams in turn told the magistrate the pills were for his own use.

In my view, it is the quantity possessed that matters in the totality of circumstances, not the alleged purpose. Moreover, a seller would likely possess in excess of eight pills. Consequently, charging someone with trafficking requires more evidence than mere possession of the illicit substance. It must be established that the defendant was involved in the sale, transport or importation of said substance, or intended to sell or deliver it.

Admittedly, I do not know the police evidence. Reportage on the case states that Adams was arrested while riding a motorcycle in the vicinity of Princes Street when he was stopped by police officers conducting “investigations.” This stop allegedly resulted in a search and his arrest. We do not know if this stop and/or search was lawful. We do not know if Adams was represented by counsel. All we know is a 20 year old student was sentenced to three years in jail for riding around Georgetown with eight ecstasy pills.

The sentence could be mandatory in light of his guilty plea, but was avoidable. The magistrate could have entered a not guilty plea and adjourned the matter for another date by which time young Adams would have been properly counseled. We don’t know all of the factors; mitigating or aggravating. Nevertheless, I strongly condemn this sentence. It is draconian, outrageous, unjust and repugnant to the principles of fundamental fairness. It is a textbook case of over-sentencing. It is immoral and wholly disproportionate to the alleged crime. It constitutes excessive punishment and a gross abuse of this young man’s human rights. All of society must condemn it!

It is time that we as a society begin rejecting unjust laws and overzealous, inflexible judicial officers whose misuse of power and the law, or misguided judicial philosophy, ruin the lives of our young people. We use our people’s power to end this. I’m not sure if this magistrate ordered a probation report for this youngster. Such inquiry would have delved into the socioeconomic circumstances of his life. It would have ascertained whether he was a trafficker and why; whether the pills were for entertainment or was a function of acquired behavior learnt through socialization.

This is why such cases involving minors should not be adjudicated in regular criminal court. They should be tried in courts where magistrates are trained in juvenile offenders’ interventions and are mandated to employ various diversion strategies to rehabilitate and remedy underlying conduct. The main objective of juvenile diversion programs is to avoid or circumvent conviction and a dreaded criminal record, which permanently destroys the lives of our youth.

As a community leader, I have worked with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office for many years on this issue. It has saved the lives of hundreds of Guyanese and Caribbean young people. It is the best in the US. I intend to recommend that the attorney general and director of public prosecutions (DPP) send representatives to observe the Brooklyn DA’s youth diversion programs. They are phenomenal.

Fifty-four percent of Guyana’s population is below age 40. The median age is 26. We cannot continue destroying the lives of our young people by saddling them with unnecessary and unjust criminal sentences whenever they make mistakes by committing minor offenses; particularly drug offenses. Western countries have reversed course and are addressing drug offenses involving possession and use, as a health crisis rather than a criminal justice mandate. It is time that Guyana adopts this sensible approach.

I advocate for the APNU+AFC coalition government of Guyana to immediately commence the process to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of narcotics and psychoactive drugs. Concomitantly I call for the coalition government to pass a law to expunge all misdemeanor drug convictions from the record of young people and other Guyanese.

We have a country to develop, a destiny to mold and generations of young people to educate and train to become leaders. We cannot accomplish our development agenda as a nation by criminalizing our youth. They are our future! I pray that one of our kind hearted, young attorneys will petition the Guyana Court of Appeal to set aside Larry John Adams’ conviction, and set him free.

Rickford Burke
President
Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy (CGID)

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