Justice Champions of Change:
How one change-maker brought people-centered justice to the Bahamas
Although home to just 390,000 people and regarded by many as a tropical paradise, The Bahamas has in recent decades been plagued by high levels of crime. The country has the 11th highest homicide rate on earth. Crimes against property increased sharply in the first fifteen years of the millennium, with the number of armed robberies almost doubling between 2006 and 2013.
The country’s justice system was for a long time part of the problem. Many trials were delayed, others never began, and a large majority of the cases brought to trial ended in acquittal. Those committing crimes could reasonably assume that their misdeeds would go unpunished.
In 2012, the third of our Justice Champions of Change, Allyson Maynard-Gibson QC, became Attorney-General of the Bahamas. She and her team set in motion a series of reforms that brought the country’s justice system into the 21st century. Among the results of those reforms between 2012 and 2016 were a 39% increase in the annual number of serious criminal cases that were concluded and a doubling in the conviction rate for serious crimes.
Sam Muller and Maaike de Langen of the Pathfinders’ Task Force on Justice interviewed Allyson, who stepped down from government in 2017 and has recently taken up a fellowship at the Advanced Leadership Institute at Harvard University, to find out how she and her team did it.
Sam: Can you begin by telling me what you felt was going wrong in The Bahamas in terms of people and justice?
Allyson: Before I was appointed Attorney-General, I was Minister of Financial Services and Investment. In that role I had to listen closely to investors and their concerns. They had an overall frustration with how the system was working, so I had to look at how we could do things better. We responded by implementing the country’s first ever 5-Year Strategic Plan for Financial Services.
Then as Attorney-General, my team and I did the same. We listened to what citizens were saying. On the criminal side, what came across most strongly was the fear of crime and the feeling that the justice system was not delivering. People complained about delays and that those released on bail frequently reoffended. On the civil justice side there was a lot of concern about unnecessary delays, bureaucracy, the lack of efficiency and so on. So, I was very much aware that this was a major problem. People affected by the judicial system were saying that it’s broken and not working.
Maaike: How did you translate these concerns that people had into changes in the system?
Allyson: When I became Attorney-General, I came with a recognition that I only had five years in which to deliver. So I tried to hit the ground running. My team and I, together with interested stakeholders, including international advisors, analyzed the reasons for the delays in the criminal justice system and identified four “escape routes” in the system. These escape routes had to be addressed at the same time if there was to be enduring change.
The first of these was calendaring — we had to eliminate conflicts in calendaring in the courts, which were causing serious delays.
The second related to transcripts. We rely heavily on transcripts, but the way that the court reporting unit was being run was also causing delays.
The third point was that in many trials it was proving impossible to actually convene a jury. So, we had to address the way we were impaneling juries, which was another cause of delays.
And the final point was the lack of defense counsel for persons charged with a serious crime. In the Bahamas, although we haven’t had an execution for a while, the death penalty is still on the books. So for serious crimes, particularly those where a death penalty sentence might be considered, the state should provide defense counsel. So we had to open a public defender office.
And the reason I call these escape routes, and the reason they had to be addressed simultaneously, is that, like squeezing a balloon, if you dealt with only one of them the pressure would increase someplace else in the system — in one of the other three areas. But if you did all four, then you shut off the possibility of escape and you forced the system to have to deal with these things, which were the main factors behind the delays.
Sam: It’s interesting that you call them escape routes. That sounds like the system was trying to get away from you and you needed to fence it in.
Allyson: Absolutely, I believe that people were profiting from inefficiencies.
So having established these four areas of focus, we had to equip the system with the facilities that it needed to deliver. We created five new criminal courts, which because of the way that they were equipped could also serve as civil courts. And we equipped these courts with relevant technologies that would speed up the judicial process and lead to monetary savings. We were still using paper photos in court, for example, so we equipped them to have digital photos and digital projection of documents. And we installed video conferencing, so that witnesses didn’t have to be flown in from other islands or other countries but could give testimony by video.
At the end of the five years we were well on the way towards solving these problems, and the number of serious matters resolved in the Supreme Court had almost doubled.
Maaike: Those are impressive results. What were the secrets of your success?
Allyson: I think there were four main factors.
The first factor was high-level political commitment. The Prime Minister, who was then Minister of Finance, was fully on board. It would have been impossible if the political will hadn’t existed.
The second was that there was pressure to act. We had pressure from citizens who were worried about crime, and we also had time pressure. In the Bahamas, governments have a five-year term, and five years flies by. I wanted to get the seed planted, to get roots in the ground, and to get at least the trunk of a tree out of the ground so people could see that change was happening.
And data is also important in applying pressure. Data is a wonderful way of keeping everybody on their toes, because you’re not talking anecdotally anymore. So, whatever you think, that’s all very nice, but these are the facts and figures. Let’s deal with facts. We only have 24 hours in a day, we don’t have a lot of time to do things. Let’s base decisions on facts, not anecdotal views.
A third factor behind our success was that we opened our doors. We wanted to listen to and learn from external voices. We brought different groups of stakeholders to the table. We also had international consultants who, as objective observers, helped lend credibility to the process. And we also listened to local stakeholders, such as NGOs, churches, prosecutors and defense counsel.
The fourth factor is that we managed to lock in the changes we made. I was also Attorney-General from 2006 to 2007, and when we lost the election the next administration got rid of everything we’d done. To lock in change, citizens need to feel its positive effects. Citizens are also voters, and I believed that it would be very difficult for a new party to undo change that was beneficial to citizens/voters.
Buy-in from the judiciary also helped lock in change. Different people come into government, and they have a different agenda, but the judiciary are around for longer so their buy-in is critical. Of course, getting the judiciary on board isn’t easy. I was excoriated by judges who were worried about their independence and felt that a member of the executive had no right to suggest that judges should be accountable. But, pointing to other jurisdictions which had similar experiences, we said that nobody is trying to influence you in your decision-making, but the resources that fund the judiciary ultimately come from taxes paid by the people, so the judiciary, as servants of the people, should be prepared to account to the people for how their taxes are being utilized.
Sam: Where we often see things go wrong with reforms is at the tactical, operational level of delivery — the bureaucratic day-to-day work on the ground to make all that change happen. What was your recipe to make sure you had delivery on the ground?
Allyson: I thought it was very important to lead the process, so I was very engaged in it. We were talking about incredible change, and bureaucracy doesn’t like change. The team involved in making the change knew that if a mistake was made, I would take the heat. And if we had successes, they would get praise. So, they were covered — just go ahead and get the job done. This, together with regular publication of data online and meetings with stakeholders, assisted in building trust.
So I think there needs to be somebody who is hands on. If it’s not the Attorney-General or the Minister of Legal Affairs, it has to be someone who has the ear of that person, and also the ear of the Prime Minister or the Minister of Finance, political colleagues and important national stakeholders too, to constantly account for what is happening.
And it was also important to achieve some quick wins, to show society and the judiciary that we were serious about fighting crime and that what we did was going to improve people’s lives. For example, early on in my tenure someone charged with attacking a policeman was tried and convicted within nine months, and another high-profile murder case was resolved within twelve months. This demonstrated that murder trials could be completed within twelve months of charge — no delays. These achievements were important because trials for murder and rape had been taking six to eight years. It was important to show the efficiencies that resulted from systemic change, effective use of technology and proper facilities.
Sam: What kind of changes did you make to the systems you used?
Allyson: As well as dealing with the four escape routes, as previously mentioned, my team and I took further transformational steps. I’ll mention two.
The first was the implementation of a system called swift justice. What was happening was that a serious criminal matter would be delayed for very long periods because witnesses didn’t turn up, or the evidence wasn’t there, or because although the person had been charged the investigation was not complete. Trial dates are set years in advance, and avoiding delays involves proper planning. Swift Justice involved weekly meetings between state actors involved in a trial. It resulted in trials proceeding more quickly because witnesses were present, physical evidence was present, the accused person was present and so forth.
The second was a change in the system of sign-off for serious criminal charges. Previously, incomplete files would be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Persons would be charged and held on remand, and prosecutors would have to chase police investigators for evidence to enable voluntary bills of indictments (VBIs) to be presented in court. Often this evidence would not be forthcoming, causing delays in presentation of the VBI and holding the trial. We changed the system so that a charge in relation to a serious crime could happen only if a senior prosecutor signed off that two criteria had been met. The first criterion was that the file received from the police was “complete”, meaning that witness statements and other evidence on the file were complete (we recognized that the forensic evidence and pathology reports probably, at the time of sign off, would not be on the file). The second criterion for sign-off was that on the basis of the complete file the prosecutor believed that a jury, reasonably directed, would convict. There was a strong feeling that it is unjust for the State to charge somebody and therefore deprive them of their liberty when state actors know that the file is not complete. This systemic change ensured that we received more complete files, including digital photos, complete witness statements, and anything else that should be on that file.
We measured the effect of these changes, and we found that they dramatically increased efficiency. The number of days it took to present a VBI went from an average of 344 in 2012 to 77 in 2016. Conviction rates for serious crimes more than doubled. So the system was fairer, because people were only being charged if the prosecutor signing off believed that a jury would convict. And it was more efficient and faster because the court’s time wasn’t being wasted by commencing matters when the evidence was incomplete.
Maaike: What can you tell us about your experience with getting financing for the things that you wanted to change?
Allyson: Money hadn’t been budgeted to build five new courts, so we found a building and engaged young Bahamian experts to convert the space into five courts. What does the court need? It needs a place for the judge to sit and be recognized as the judge. It needs a place for defense counsel and prosecutors (in a criminal matter) or plaintiffs (in a civil matter) to sit. They don’t need to sit at different tables, they can sit at the same table – everybody in the court knows who they are. If it’s a criminal court, you need space for a jury, you need a jury room and a place that people can sit so that the public can watch what’s going on. Theoretically, that could even happen out under a tree. So, those five courts were not your traditional courts that are often large rooms with lots of wasted space. They are well designed, functional courts.
Although we were frugal in some areas, we invested in good technology — we needed the video-conferencing capacity, the digital projection capacity, the data protection capacity. And we put in place the ability for all hearings between charge and trial to take place in courts equipped with digital capacity at the prison.
The judges, who were initially a little skeptical about having a smaller space, told me that they liked the changes once they got going, and once they were able to use the technology and see that every effort was being made for them to have modern equipment, so they could do their job more effectively. They also found that they were getting equipment and assets more quickly. For example, when a member of my team discovered that certain courts needed internet upgrades, those upgrades were done immediately.
So, it’s about opening up the possibility of communication, and saying let’s work together on this. Buy-in came because my team and I were hands on about holding regular meetings with NGOs and other private sector stakeholders, seeking their views, explaining why things were being done, showing them how changes benefited them and made their lives easier, and showing that people were trying to be responsible with limited resources.
Sam: Finally, can you tell us what you are most proud of?
Allyson: I’m proud about several things. First, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to work with extraordinary professionals in the office of the Attorney-General. The effort of this incredible team resulted in tremendously positive impacts on the lives of citizens. When people come up to me and say, “AG I’m so happy I was able to get my matter heard and know that the person who caused my family so much pain is now behind bars.” Or, “AG thank you for putting online what’s happening in the court so that people like me can see what’s happening with my matter,” that kind of thing is very satisfying.
Second, I’m very grateful for and proud of the strong engagement that the criminal defense bar had in helping to implement changes. Establishing regular meetings and lines of communication was initially a bit of a rocky road. The involvement of leaders at the criminal defense bar was pivotal to positive change.
And I’m also proud of the numbers. Data was placed daily on the website of the Attorney-General’s Office. We took seriously our mandate to be held to account and to involve people, opening the doors, demystifying the courts, making information publicly available. Data brings accountability and transparency.
The data shows that in the face of considerable fear of crime, we saw an increase in the serious crime conviction rate from 31% to 66%, because of better preparation of cases and better investigations, and the murder conviction rate increasing to 75%. Those are the kinds of things that made us realize we were doing the job better and smarter. And when a potential criminal understands that the system works, it has a positive effect on letting people understand that the State is serious about crime and the fear of crime.
To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.