KINGSTON, Jamaica – Claudette Johnson still has a hard time sleeping at night a decade after her son was fatally shot in a confrontation with Jamaican police and 15 years after her taxi driver husband was murdered by gunmen.
Year after year, both cases have collected dust in the island’s gridlocked court system, leaving her in limbo. Meanwhile, she’s grimly tracked the men she believes are responsible for the killings of her loved ones, even as witnesses have vanished and memories have grown murky.
“Lord, it hurts. You can wait forever for justice here,” Johnson said in an outdoor Kingston market where she scrapes out a living selling secondhand clothing from a sunbaked wooden stall.
Johnson’s exasperation with the sluggish pace of Caribbean justice reflects what many say is a regional crisis.
While the Caribbean is known to most visitors as a vacation paradise, with its palm trees and white sand beaches, the backlog in overburdened courts has soared as crime statistics show homicide rates nearly doubling in several countries since 1995. At the same time, underfunded and inefficient courts have failed to keep up with the punishing caseloads, stalling lives and even acting as a disincentive for foreign investment.
Perhaps nowhere is the problem more marked than in Jamaica, which is struggling to whittle down a crushing number of old criminal cases. With even basic statistical data on the flow of cases lacking, most officials have long put the court backlog at over 400,000 on the island of 2.7 million people, although some justice officials now say the number is closer to 200,000. Whatever the full tally, authorities uniformly agree that the sprawling backlog is a big problem, with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Andrew Holness likening it to a “cancer in the core of the nation.”
The consequences of the inefficiency are dire. In its 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the U.S. State Department said Jamaica’s sluggish criminal justice system contributes to “impunity for many of the worst criminal offenders and gangs, an abnormally high rate of violent crimes” and other social costs.
The conviction rate for murders is just 5 percent in Jamaica. As a result, islanders believe killers routinely go unpunished in a country with among the world’s highest murder rates, and deadly vigilante justice against people suspected in crimes is a fairly regular occurrence.
In countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, prisons are filled with inmates who have not been convicted of a crime, often waiting years for their trials to start or be dismissed.
In Haiti, dismal facilities have no toilets or proper plumbing and holding pens are so crowded that many inmates take turns sleeping at night because of a lack of space. In the national penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, the percentage of the roughly 3,700 inmates in pretrial detention is about 90 percent, according to Josh Pazour, an attorney who works for a U.S.-funded program that seeks to improve Haiti’s justice system.
The Caribbean’s woes are emblematic of problems across the Americas. The overwhelming majority of murders in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Honduras go unpunished. And in 2009, at the height of drug battles in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, 2,600 people were slain but only 19 convicted of homicide. It’s common in many countries for people to spend years in prison without being tried.
The delays have even hit justice systems in relatively wealthy Caribbean nations such as the Bahamas and Barbados. Experts say postponements are often granted by judges for the flimsiest of reasons and there’s no shortage of defense lawyers who benefit. Officials complain that a culture of delays has become chronic in courtrooms.
Wayne Munroe, a prominent attorney and former head of the Bahamas Bar Association, said some islanders have spent a decade waiting for trials and estimated the archipelago’s criminal backlog stands at around 10,000, with up to 500 open murder cases.
“There is an impact on lawlessness. A lot of people go out and think they will not be caught. And if they are caught, they won’t face trial,” Munroe said.
Escalating crime rates around the Caribbean have been key to the crisis in recent decades.
In Trinidad & Tobago, homicides grew by 488 percent between 1999 and 2008, the U.N. Development Program says. And according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the murder rate in Jamaica was 52.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, compared to 4.8 per 100,000 in the United States. Violence has also rocked the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where the National Guard was activated in 2010 to fight soaring violent crime rates.
Since the 1980s, drug traffickers have helped drive up crime by introducing narcotics with a street value exceeding the size of the Caribbean’s legal economy. Even with drug seizures diminishing by 71 percent between 1997 and 2009 as contraband shifted to Central American routes, lethal violence increased, partly due to frenzied competition for turf in a diminished illicit market.
Exacerbating the problem are court systems that already barely functioned before they were hit by the cases.
Judges and prosecutors blame staff shortages and underfinanced courts, while citizens cite incompetence, corruption, tardy forensic and ballistic reports, and archaic courts relying on paper and ink instead of computers.
Even impaneling juries can be a challenge in Jamaica, where many people will feign illness to avoid jury duty and the paltry daily subsistence allowances that come with it.
Complicating matters further, a large number of randomly-selected jurors never even get their summons to appear in the first place. The Jamaican police unit responsible for serving the notices say they only have one car, resulting in a low percentage of potential jurors ever getting summons.
Officials in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are trying to speed up justice by pushing for legislative amendments to eliminate preliminary inquiries, which determine if the state has enough evidence to justify a trial, and reduce the number of matters that require trial by jury, a hallmark of British common law and the basis for many islands’ justice systems.
“Reduction of backlog is a main priority of the government and the courts,” said Carol Palmer, permanent secretary of Jamaica’s Justice Ministry.
For Johnson, government pledges to improve the system ring hollow. Like many other impoverished Jamaicans, she’s convinced that the system is rigged against her.
“In this country,” she said, holding a photo of her slain 21-year-old son, “justice is never for the poor.”