Mandatory jail sentences making Malta’s drug problem worse - criminologist

Criminologist Sandra Scicluna blames politicians for failing to address drug legislation over fears they might look ‘soft on crime’

Criminologist Sandra Scicluna
Criminologist Sandra Scicluna

Criminologist Sandra Scicluna believes mandatory prison sentences are exacerbating the country’s drug problem rather than solve it.

In a recent court ruling, the 25-year-old son of European Commissioner Helena Dalli was handed a three-month jail term after he was apprehended outside a Paola party with two others in the process of acquiring six ecstasy pills, eight years ago. He was then aged 18.

The conviction has prompted calls for a reform in our justice system when it comes to approaching the issue of drugs.

Scicluna, who was interviewed by Raphael Vassallo in this Sunday’s edition of MaltaToday, said the law does not provide the judiciary with any real discretion, when it comes to passing sentences.

“As the law stands right now, there are mandatory prison sentences for drug trafficking, manufacturing, importation and distribution. Also, suspended sentences do not apply. In these cases, the magistrate would have no choice but to apply a prison sentence,” Scicluna said.

Even in the case of a minimum sentence Scicluna believes the consequences can be quite serious.

A sentence of only a week can still cost one’s job and reputation, Scicluna said.

“The aim cannot be to ‘rehabilitate’ the perpetrator; because if we want to talk about rehabilitation… it cannot be achieved in a week, two weeks, three months, or six months. It needs time,” Scicluna insisted.

The criminologists said that legislators should explore the possibility of allowing alternatives to prison sentences.

For someone caught with a small number of illicit drugs, a community service order would be a better approach to the case.

“These alternatives do exist; but the law, in its current state, does not allow the judiciary the discretion to actually use them,” according to Scicluna.

She also said the judiciary is well aware of the problems in legislation.

“[Judges and magistrates] will be acutely aware that they are going to put that person in prison, in a system which is not really geared up for rehabilitation,” she said.

She also blamed legislators for taking a step backwards when approaching drug legislation, stating they “are reluctant to legislate in a way that is seen to be ‘soft on crime’.”

“Even if we look at the recent amendments on cannabis, for instance. The impression many people out there have is that cannabis has become ‘legal’. Well… it hasn’t. There is still punishment attached to it; and OK, in most cases it will be a fine, as opposed to a prison sentence. But a fine is still punishment; and as long as there is punishment, you cannot talk about it as being ‘legal’,” according to the criminologist.

She said a number of issues must be addressed within the current prison system.

“One of the main problems, today, is the huge number of inmates who are not convicted at all; but awaiting trial under arrest. At present, there are more people held in custody under arrest at Corradino, than actually serving a sentence. A considerable number of those, in turn, are foreigners from non-EU countries: with which we have no extradition treaties,” she said.

“The way I see it: if someone is sentenced to anything up to two years - with certain exceptions, naturally - that person doesn’t really need to enter a prison setting at all. And any sentence of less than six months is particularly unnecessary: I can’t even imagine what use there is in sending them to prison in the first place.  There just isn’t enough time to work with them.”

But Scicluna does not see a solution in building another prison, stating they come at a costly price, while not everybody would like to have a prison in their own backyard.

“Naturally, this doesn’t mean it ‘can’t be done’ – everything can be done, up to a point. But… is that the only way? Ultimately, it boils down to a system of dividing prisoners that makes sense,” she said.