A recent report advocates increasing legal assistance for Haiti’s prisoners awaiting trial, an initiative that could lessen some of the human and financial losses incurred by the island nation’s broken justice system.
The research, published by the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s Haiti Priorise project, argues that targeting Haiti’s pretrial detention issue could incur financial benefits worth nearly three times the cost of the program.
Authored by Jimmy Verne, an economist from Haiti’s Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation (Ministère de la Planification et de la Coopération Externe – MPCE), the think tank’s report calls for the extension of an already existing legal assistance program launched in 2012, which led to the creation of nine Legal Assistance Offices (LAOs) that now cover five of Haiti’s 18 “first instance” courts, where cases are brought in front of the judge for the first time.
The aim of the LAOs is to provide assistance to defendants who cannot afford legal representation. More than half of the Haitian population lives below the poverty line and nearly a quarter live in extreme poverty, according to the report.
Most of those jailed are poor and have yet to be sentenced. Out of Haiti’s total prison population of 10,646 inmates in 2015, more than 72 percent — or 7,665 — were pretrial detainees. The report believes LAOs could facilitate trials for nearly 2,800 detainees, or about 30 percent.
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In turn, cutting down on pretrial detention could generate substantial financial benefits. The study estimates that, on average, every prisoner freed through the program would save two years of prison costs for that person. Even convicted criminals would spend an average of one less year in prison with the help of LAOs, the study estimates.
Taking into consideration estimates on the economic productivity of released individuals during these periods, as well as the decrease in the costs that the state would assume to maintain individuals incarcerated, the report concludes that Haiti could save over $6 million by the end of 2018. This would amount to nearly three times the cost incurred by the expansion of the program to cover all of Haiti’s municipalities.
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Haiti’s justice system is broken, and its prisons are overflowing. In February 2017, an investigation published by the Associated Press revealed that prisoners died by the dozens due to the living conditions behind bars, with an estimated 80 percent of prisoners in pretrial detention. Haiti holds the worst prison overcrowding rate in the world, at more than 450 percent, according to the University of London’s Institute of Criminal Policy and Research.
It is uncertain whether the document’s theoretic economic conclusions would translate into concrete monetary gains. The report, for example, gives very little detail on how it reached the estimates of economic gains from released prisoners, in a country where the unemployment rate exceeded 13 percent in 2016.
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But the program’s gains from a human perspective appear at least as valuable. Allowing for detainees to be tried would not only avoid the incarceration of individuals ultimately proved innocent, it would also decrease overcrowding and the mixing of prisoners, which, as InSight Crime detailed in a recent report, can serve as a catalyst for the growth of organized crime.