All Haitians are equal before the law. So says the Haitian Constitution. But in reality, access to justice can happen at different speeds for different people.
One reason is the lack of judges. During 2014-2015, there were just 63 trial judges for 8,046 people awaiting trial. Added to this fact, there is a lack of resources to properly operate the judicial and the prison systems. And, according to testimonies and expressions of public sentiment, corruption affects all levels of the judicial system.
But a big factor is affordability. Around sixty percent of the Haitian population do not earn enough to afford representation by a legal professional in a matter of private or public law.
Dr. Jimmy Verne, Planner-economist for the Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation (MPCE) has analyzed this situation in a new research paper for Haiti Priorise. In this research project, specialist experts are analyzing solutions to challenges. We have released research papers focused just on Haiti, looking at everything from the ambulance network to girls’ education and agro-forestry. We are releasing this research to aid public debate on different ways to improve Haiti’s prosperity and wellbeing. This week, an eminent panel is gathering in Port-au-Prince to consider all of the research and identify effective priorities.
One serious consequence he examines is the state’s use of preventive pretrial detention. A study by the National Human Rights Defence Network (RNDDH) in October 2010 revealed that 75% of inmates were in pretrial detention. Five years later, in 2015, the rate had decreased very little (72.19%) according to the Section of Human Rights (SDH) of MINUSTAH.
This causes gross injustices. There are inmates who have already spent two or three years in jail awaiting judgment, for offences for which they would only be sentenced to six months in prison if found guilty.
Haiti Priorise asked Dr. Verne to analyze the impact of a response to this challenge.
Dr. Verne proposes an expansion of the first Legal Assistance Office program, which officially launched in 2012. The project, which would partner with the Ministry of Justice and Public Security (MJSP) and the Federation of Bar Associations of Haiti, would increase the coverage of the nine Legal Assistance Offices. Currently, the offices cover five of the nation’s eighteen first instance courts.
Based on the 2015 prison population, there are more than 7,600 individuals in preventive pretrial detention. Since there are many other factors contributing to this problem, Dr. Verne assumes that the investment will reduce the number of cases of preventive pretrial detention by 30%, allowing nearly 2,800 of these detainees to be tried.
It costs 10.7 million gourdes ($161,000) in set-up costs and remuneration for each office. So the total budget required would be 139 million gourdes ($2 million).
There are benefits to detainees and their families. When an individual is released because of this intervention (either because he was not guilty, or because he had already served the sentence for the offence committed), he regains the opportunity to become employed. Those found innocent avoid an average incarceration of 24 months – meaning that over these two years, this group could avoid a loss of around 94 million gourdes ($1.3 million) in income. For those found guilty, the average sentence is 12 months. Avoiding an additional year incarcerated will mean employment income of 103 million gourdes ($1.4 million).
But there are also benefits for Haiti as a whole. Detainees are the responsibility of the State. When the State releases individuals from an unjust imprisonment, it also saves the State money. Dr. Verne calculates the total savings to be in the order of 82 million gourdes.
Added together, one year of a national legal aid program would see benefits to Haitian society worth 380 million gourdes.
What this means is that every gourde spent on establishing a nationwide legal aid system would create benefits to society worth 2.8 gourdes.
When we think of ways to support Haiti’s progress and development, we often think first of education and health. Those who are in jail may not be the first people we think of. But making sure Haitians are not imprisoned when they shouldn’t be is not only economically efficient. It is also just.