By: Alexus McNally, ILF Program Officer
In early April, the International Legal Foundation (ILF) was invited to a screening event and
panel discussion hosted by Incarceration Nations Network (INN) and the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) in Trinidad & Tobago to engage local stakeholders on the current crisis in access to justice.
The screening event featured two episodes of Incarceration Nations: A Global Docuseries. The docuseries, which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, is a mixed-media series about the global mass incarceration crisis narrated by people who have lived in incarceration around the world. The two episodes, Waiting... and Waiting... for Trial–which features the ILF’s work successfully advocating for the release of a Nepali client–and Heal Not Harm, expose an international crisis while also spotlighting solutions, showcasing the work of INN justice partners. The screening was followed by a panel discussion led by Dr. Baz Driesinger (founder and executive director of INN), and featured attorney Daniel Khan (former inspector of prisons), senior attorney Jagdeo Singh, Debbie Jacob (national award recipient, journalist, and prison activist), Nirad Tewarie (CEO, American Chamber of Commerce in Trinidad & Tobago), and ILF Senior Program Director Holly Hobart.
Shockingly, on average, individuals are detained for over seven years prior to trial and prior to their indictment. Individuals are often detained pretrial and pre-indictment for much longer periods of time, with some detained for up to 20 years.
The panel discussion was solution-oriented and focused on the most critical challenges currently facing the Trinidad and Tobago justice system. In Trinidad and Tobago, there is a dire crisis in access to justice, with unconscionable delays and limited access to quality legal aid services. Shockingly, on average, individuals are detained for over seven years prior to trial and prior to their indictment. Individuals are often detained pretrial and pre-indictment for much longer periods of time, with some detained for up to 20 years. Children are especially vulnerable in the criminal justice system, and while there have been some advances in the juvenile justice space, urgent problems persist. There are few diversionary measures to address underlying causes of system involvement and help children rehabilitate. Instead, more children are actually being funneled into the court system through Children in Need of Supervision (CHINS) applications, with even fewer due process protections. Lawyers, police, prosecutors, and judges are not properly trained to ensure the administration of child-friendly justice with an understanding of positive youth development and best interests of the child.
The discussion spurred a number of recommendations to improve the justice system including establishing a criminal division within the High Court; engaging in more science-based investigations; decreasing reliance on the subjective judgment of police officers; increasing the pay of public defenders; and providing incentives for businesses to hire formerly incarcerated individuals. The ILF Program Officer Alexus McNally and Senior Program Director Holly Hobart had the pleasure of convening with numerous justice stakeholders, including Sharine Pollard, the head of the gender-based violence response unit (formed in 2020) in the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service; Chief Public Defender Hasine Shaikh; administrators from the Family and Children Division of the High Court; the Children's Authority; the Australian High Commission; and the Prison Administration. In coordination with these and other local stakeholders and in line with our ongoing technical assistance work, the ILF hopes to better understand the situation of children in the Trinidad and Tobago justice system, build the capacity of lawyers and other actors to ensure quality, holistic legal aid services are accessible, and increase the diversion of children away from the criminal justice system.