EDITORIAL - Courts must be tough on corruption

Notwithstanding their incompetence in the organisational management of the courts, this newspaper has little cause to question either the judicial acumen or the integrity of Jamaican judges.

So it is with caution that we note, and draw attention to what, on the face of it, appears to be judicial aberration that warrants full ventilation, lest it be interpreted by public officials that the judicial penalty for corruption, or for failing to follow the rules, is worth the risk.

We refer to a report last week by this newspaper on a recent report by the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, in which a public officer was convicted for illicit enrichment, having been unable to satisfactorily explain an increase in his wealth in reports filed with the commission over a five-year period, up to 2007.

This individual apparently earned less than $1 million annually. Yet, he reported that his assets over the period grew by $12 million, including investments of $7 million in unregulated financial schemes.

Having pleaded guilty to the offence, the individual was fined $700,000 for illicit enrichment and $100,000 each on three counts of making a false declaration.

So, he would have paid a grand total of $1 million, or eight per cent of the $12-million growth in his assets. Not a bad return in the circumstance.

But under Section 15 (1) of the Corruption Prevention Act, this person, if it was a first offence and the conviction was in a resident magistrate's court, could have for the illicit enrichment been fined up to $1 million, imprisonment for two years, or fined and imprisoned. For making a false statement, the person could have also have been imprisoned in addition to being fined.

Conviction for corruption in a circuit court, on a first offence, could bring a fine not exceeding $3 million and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

Lenient with corruption

The judge in the case chose, in our view, to be lenient, as was the one who fined employees of the National Works Agency $50,000 on each of six counts of failing to report their interest in a company contracted to do work for the agency. Such work was their responsibility to certify.

Our surprise at the leniency of these sentences is in the context of high levels of corruption, real or perceived, in Jamaica. Corruption is widely perceived to be a drag on the country's social and economic development.

Defeating corruption will come not only through moral suasion. It requires, too, enforced rules-based systems with penalties that are rigorously applied.

The penalties applied in these cases suggest the need for transparent sentence guidelines and for judges to be fully attuned to the critical issues confronting the society.

At the same time, we urge the administration to move with urgency to table, debate and pass in Parliament the promised single anti-corruption agency, to replace the myriad agencies that duplicate efforts and inefficiently use limited resources with far less than optimal outcomes. That agency, however, must have the requisite power and authority to do its job properly.

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