Is suspended sentencing a new trend at Tonga’s Courts?
By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – Siosifa Fotu, 37, was a convicted dealer of methamphetamine at the village of Fo’ui. He was dealing drugs from his vehicle at his home. Police found him sitting in his vehicle with meth and a lot of cash. He admitted his crime, and had no previous convictions, both were mitigating factors.
Fotu was also married with children.
Justice Langi sentenced him to 3 years 9 months imprisonment, but the final 18 months suspended, thus Fotu was serving only 2 years 3 months.
The Judge accepted the accused was remorseful and that he was a good candidate for rehabilitation, thus warranting the partial suspension of his sentence.
In issuing her sentencing judgment, Justice Langi said: “With the right tools given to him through drug and alcohol courses and with the support of his family, I believe he has a good chance of turning his life around and becoming a more responsible person in the community.”
Makaafi’s sentence fully suspended
On January 21, Siaosi Makaafi was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for the possession of drugs, and ammunition without a license, seized at his home in Fua’amotu.
In sentencing Makaafi, Justice Langi fully suspended the sentence on conditions that he does not commit any further offenses punishable by imprisonment of 2 years. He must also complete Salvation Army Drugs and Alcohol Awareness Program and Life Skills Course, and must undertake 40 hours of community service.
The accused was not a first offender. He had also pleaded guilty to two previous offenses of drug possession.
Justice Langi said that “suspended sentence was appropriate where an offender was likely to take the opportunity offered by the sentence to rehabilitate himself, cooperate with authorities, and where the accused had pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity.”
Fully suspended sentence for drug dealer
Similate Tupou was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment for possession of methamphetamine, and ammunition without a license, seized at his home in Pahu. He was selling drugs from his home.
He also had previous convictions for theft at the Magistrate Court, 6 different convictions for theft and assault charges.
On January 15, Justice Langi sentenced Tupou to 9 months imprisonment, fully suspended.
Police informant sentence suspended
A 44 year old police informant had his sentence of 16 months imprisonment fully suspended for two years on conditions.
The informant was charged for possession of illicit drugs, methamphetamine and cannabis, seized at his Pili home on 29 March 2019.
The Crown conceded that the extent of the defendant’s assistance to Police resulted in 11 Police operations seizing methamphetamine totaling 59.68 grams, 543 grams of cannabis, and $2,803 in cash.
Chief Justice Whitten ordered name suppression for the offender, and acknowledged the fact that in prison the defendant’s life may be endangered.
Fully suspended sentence for first offender
Paea Leka was sentenced for 2 years 6 months imprisonment for possession of methamphetamine and cannabis. A search of his home found the drugs.
Justice Langi fully suspended the sentence, but also expressed concern: “The alarming increase in drug-related offenses in our country is of concern to the courts, the government and the general public.” “It is no secret,” she said. “That amphetamine is increasingly common in Tonga.”
It was raised in court that Leka was a first time offender and was remorseful for his actions.
Are there mitigating reasons of these suspended sentencing?
There are quite a few cases, mostly drugs related that have been given suspended sentencing at the Supreme Court. Most are cases tried in the 2020/21 period. In fact it seems the common thing that convicted drug dealers are getting suspended sentences, and this comes at a time when the crimes of illegal drug possession and use is becoming rampant in the community.
Questions have been raised whether the trend of light sentencing for illicit drug offenses and especially suspended sentencing are enough not only to apply due justice but also act as deterrence to the crimes committed?
A former drug offender who was deported to Tonga, and who did not want his name revealed, said that drug dealers who are given light sentences or suspended sentencing are more apt to reoffend because “they do not mind going to jail for a few months and then come out to reoffend again.” But even in jail, these dealers continue to commit crime, he said.
Police in the drug task force are not willing to talk to media, but when one was asked whether suspended sentences belittle the hard work they do to catch the criminals, he said: “Our job is to investigate, catch them and bring them to court… the rest is the responsibility of others.”
There is however, a trend worldwide, particularly in Western countries that incarceration for the sake of punishment does not produce the outcome expected in the judiciary system, and so the focus has been on rehabilitation.
In Tonga, the Salvation Army has the only credible facility for counseling and working with drug and alcohol related offenders for rehabilitation. They are totally understaffed and have inadequate facilities for the huge demand at hand.
Justices of the Tonga Supreme Court however, are always clear in their issuance of statements as to the mitigating reasoning behind suspended sentences, and why rehabilitation is more appropriate than punishment. But what kind of outcome in terms of application of justice and of deterrence from criminal activities would this new trend bring?