by Larry Smith
Former police prosecutor Keith Bell told a public forum Monday that the Bahamian criminal justice system was "on the brink of collapse" and we could look forward to kidnappings and terrorism unless it was fixed.
Bell, a lawyer who spent 23 years on the police force, headed the prosecutions department before his retirement last month with the rank of chief superintendent. He also worked in the police intelligence branch.
"Now is the time to stop all the talk," he declared in a panel discussion at the College of the Bahamas on the Sanctity of Life: Socio-Legal Responses to Misadventures and Unlawful Killings in The Bahamas.
"From 1990 to the present we have had about a thousand murders, and that doesn't include attempted killings or causing grievous harm. Our murder rate is higher than the US and three times higher than Canada.
"We have intercepted arms shipments for the Bahamas that included assault weapons, grenades and explosives, and we could soon see the spread of kidnappings here like they have in Trinidad or terrorist actions like they have in Jamaica."
He added that there were already areas on New Providence like Nassau Village where police had to go in large numbers of 30 or more officers if they wanted to make an arrest.
"We have to control it on New Providence. If this spreads to the out islands we will be unable to control it and we will go back to the days of piracy."
Other panelists at the forum on Monday evening included Canon Kirkley Sands, lawyer Leandra Esfakis and COB criminology lecturer E'Thegra Symonette. The discussion was moderated by Jessica Minnis of the School of Social Sciences.
Bell told the audience that the Bahamas was witnessing a "paradigm shift" in the way people are being killed, and the justice system itself had become the biggest obstacle to crime reduction.
"One third of accused murderers are out on bail, including those accused of up to 10 murders. The statistics and reports are all there. We know what is happening. The only question is who is going to be next."
According to official figures, over 1700 inmates (or 68 per cent of the total prison population of 2,556) are on remand. And last year only one of the inmates admitted for murder was sentenced while 89 were awaiting trial.
Bell said the only way to address the problem was for the political class as a priority to agree on a common agenda for crime reduction and comprehensive legal reform.
"Police seize 180 firearms on the street every year," he said, "but it is only a small fraction of what is out there. I can go out on the street right now and buy machine guns, ammo and bullet proof vests.
"Already, more than half of our murders and two thirds of armed robberies and injuries are committed with firearms," he said."We have every major gun trafficker before the courts, but they are out on bail."
"If we can go on TV and say (Samuel) 90 (Knowles) is a god, we have not got our priorities right. What about all the people he destroyed with cocaine?"
The reference was to a ZNS news segment last week that featured residents of Knowles' former neighbourhood praising the convicted drug trafficker as a "robin hood" and a pillar of the community.
Knowles was extradited from the Bahamas in 2006 to face federal narcotics charges in the US. He was convicted in March and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
"We have still not recovered from our drug years and if you read the 1984 commission of inquiry report you will see that the whole fabric of society was corrupted by the drug trade. Four hundred crime files a month came across my desk and about a third involved drugs."
Bell called for an independent national ombudsman to combat corruption, which he said permeated the entire society. He added that, although there were some "bad apples", the police force was the only agency trying to do something about corruption, which had become institutionalised in business and government.
He declined to answer a question from COB lecturer Michael Stevenson on the degree of political pressure that police intelligence officers faced.
He said rape was another serious problem for the Bahamas, revealing that infants as young as five months were being raped by people with HIV/AIDS, often sending the victim's parents into the Sandilands psychiatric hospital.
"There are 100,000 matters before the courts, including 11,000 criminal cases and 48,000 traffic cases," he said."That's about a third of the total population before the courts, and it is getting worse and worse."
He pointed out that the investigation of serious crimes was compromised by the lack of a police forensic lab and other facilities. For example, there were only 10 officers assigned to the murder squad. And when crime samples were sent to the US for forensic tests, they had a low priority which further contributed to the delays in the justice system.
He said more judges were urgently needed because the judicial system had no choice but to set accused persons free on bail if they could not be tried in a timely fashion. Many of these persons on bail were committing more crimes to help pay their legal fees, or targeting witnesses.
And - because of recent Privy Council rulings on capital punishment - all those already convicted of murder now had to go through protracted re-sentencing hearings, putting further strain on the system.
"It's going to get a lot worse unless we take the bull by the horns and make some very tough decisions," Bell said. "We have the capacity to act, but we lack the tenacity.
"For example, why are we still charging unlawful killers with murder when we know that capital punishment cannot be applied? We should amend the law to provide for degrees of killing to make it easier to convict and implement a system of formal plea bargaining.
"Why are we still wasting time on Cordell Farrington (who was charged with the murder of several schoolboys in Freeport five years ago) when he has already been convicted and sentenced for (another) murder?"
Bell said the volume of criminal cases faced by the police was enormous. In addition to murders, there were some 1200 armed robberies a year, not to mention all the other serious offences.
"I had case files going back to 1970 to be tried. We have to fix the system."