August 6, 2007

International criminal justice problems spawn unusual solutions

"Mobile courts," "ghetto courts" spring up in India and Jamaica

Most Americans tend to be pretty ignorant about the rest of the world. I'm no exception. I have to admit that, while I write a lot about criminal justice issues, I don't know as much as I'd like to about the systems in many other nations. So, I thought I'd share a bit that I just learned about a couple of widely disparate criminal justice trends.

First, India:

We know that our own prisons are overcrowded, but did you know that theirs are, too? And that they, like us, are implementing a massive new prison construction program to augment and replace their old prisons, mostly built by the British between 1860 and 1930?

Much of the problem of overcrowding in Indian prisons stems from a massive backlog of "undertrials," according to yesterday's Times of India. That term, I gathered, is the Indian word for pretrial detainee. About two-thirds of the prison population are "undertrials."

And now, in an innovative effort to make the court system more accessible "to remote and backward areas," India has just launched its first "mobile court."

The mobile court is housed in a bus and staffed like a regular court to conduct full civil and criminal trials. It will travel to different regions each week, starting in a very "backward" district with an "abysmal literacy rate," according to yesterday's edition of The Hindu newspaper.

Meanwhile, a different trend of vigilante-style courts is emerging in Jamaica, apparently due to popular mistrust of the official police and court system.

The underground community tribunals in urban ghettos mete out their own forms of justice, including beatings, the breaking of bones and "sun-dance," a punishment in which an individual must "kneel on bottle-stoppers in the sun for prolonged periods, according to an editorial in yesterday's Jamaica Gleaner.

The editorial, by retired judge and former government minister Hugh Small, sounded an alarm over the potential human rights issues raised by such courts.

"Why has nothing been done, especially when they are said to impose punishments that would be regarded by the formal justice system as being cruel and inhuman?" asked Small. "If the existence of these courts is accepted in these communities as preferable to the formal system, what does this mean for nurturing awareness for the right to challenge abuses of human rights by the citizenry and the police?"

Well, that's it for this little dose of international perspective.