Are our laws effectively addressing serious crime?

It is bad enough that we have ushered in a new year with three alleged cases of murder, leaving families and friends of the victims devastated, and stoking fears within the community of what to expect over the next 12 months.

But we have laws that were developed over the years which set out the penalties for breaches which should serve as a deterrence to an individual going down that path. 

For example, under Samoa’s Crimes Act 2013, the maximum penalty that the Courts give for murder, attempted murder and manslaughter is life imprisonment. 

The penalty for sexual violation: a person who commits rape is liable to imprisonment for life; and a person commits unlawful sexual connection is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years. 

Punishment of theft: A person who is convicted of theft is liable as follows: (a) in the case of a theft by person in special relationship under section 162, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years; or (b) if the value of the property stolen exceeds $1,000, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years etc.

But has the application of the law by our law enforcement agencies including the Courts – in a bid to guide human behaviour and promote a just and civil society – brittled out in recent years that it is now no longer a deterrence to extreme levels of human conduct?

Our Courts have come under the spotlight in recent years over some of their decisions in relation to murder, assault, sexual offenses and even theft with the families of the victims amongst those raising concerns at the light sentences and questioning whether the prosecution team gave 110 per cent to secure the maximum penalty available in law.

Therefore, the call by the Minister of Police and Prisons, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt for tougher prison sentences for serious crimes in the 10 January 2021 edition of the Sunday Samoan is timely.

“Sentencing should reflect the extent and horrific [nature] of the crime committed, but 10 years [for murder] is not enough,” he said. “Under the Crimes Act anyone convicted of murder automatically serves jail.

“After serving 10 years in jail, the accused's fate rests solely [in] the hands of the Parole Board.

"[If] that person is then eligible for parole and sometimes their request is granted and sometimes it's denied." 

The Minister’s scrutiny of the practice by Judges to rule that defendants serve separate sentences concurrently rather than consecutively is also a case in point.

“It is the norm for judges to hand down sentencing to be served concurrently, yet the crimes were committed separately; therefore [they] should be served consecutively,” he said.

According to the Minister the perpetrators found guilty of serious crimes should face longer prison terms. 

“Ten years is not enough for a convicted murderer,” he said. “If anything there should be harsher penalties for such horrific crimes. 

“The sentencing should reflect the extent and [horror] of the crime committed, but 10 years is not enough.”

With the 2021 General Election three months away, candidates should also have this conversation and question whether the country’s current laws are adequate and meet the needs of the community.

Should capital punishment be introduced in an independent Samoa to address cold blooded murder with intent? Or what is the next alternative form of sentencing for murder, attempted murder and manslaughter cases other than capital punishment? Or maybe Samoa’s current laws are appropriate to address serious crime but the issue lies with the inadequacy of lawyers’ courtroom skills and competency to effectively argue their cases?

These are important questions that should be asked in order to find a pathway forward.

This could be an agenda that the new Government after the April election could pursue in order to find a long-term solution to serious crimes that appear to be on the rise. 

State agency Samoa Law Reform Commission would probably be best placed to undertake this assignment in line with a Government directive, and in doing so embark on a consultative process with all the relevant law and justice sector stakeholders and members of the public.

At the end of the day citizens need to have confidence that the laws that govern their day-to-day living would not only be respected, but also acknowledged for the avenues that it provides for those with grievances and suitable penalties as restitution for crimes committed.

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