KINGSTON, Jamaica – Claudette Johnson still has a hard time sleeping at night a decade after her son was fatally shot in a confrontation with Jamaican police and 15 years after her taxi driver husband was murdered by gunmen.
Year after year, both cases have collected dust in the island’s gridlocked court system, leaving her in limbo. Meanwhile, she’s grimly tracked the men she believes are responsible for the killings of her loved ones, even as witnesses have vanished and memories have grown murky.
“Lord, it hurts. You can wait forever for justice here,” Johnson said in an outdoor Kingston market where she ekes out a living selling second hand clothing from a sun-baked wooden stall.
Johnson’s exasperation with the sluggish pace of Jamaican justice reflects what many say is a regional crisis.
While the Caribbean is known to most visitors as a vacation paradise, the backlog in overburdened courts has soared as crime statistics show homicide rates nearly doubling in several countries since 1995.
At the same time, underfunded and inefficient courts have failed to keep up with the punishing caseloads, stalling lives and even acting as a disincentive for foreign investment.
In some countries, thousands of defendants have languished in decrepit lockups for years without trial.
Perhaps nowhere is the problem more marked than in Jamaica, which is struggling to whittle down a crushing number of old criminal cases. With even basic statistical data on the flow of cases lacking, most officials have long put the court backlog at over 400,000 in a country of 2.7 million people, although some justice officials now say the number is closer to 200,000.
Whatever the full tally, authorities uniformly agree that the sprawling backlog is a big problem, with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Andrew Holness likening it to a “cancer in the core of the nation.”
The consequences are dire. In its 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the U.S. State Department said Jamaica’s sluggish criminal justice system contributes to “impunity for many of the worst criminal offenders and gangs, an abnormally high rate of violent crimes” and other social costs.
The conviction rate for murders is five percent. As a result, Jamaicans believe killers routinely go unpunished in a country with some of the world’s highest murder rates and deadly vigilante justice against people suspected in crimes is a fairly regular occurrence.
In countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic, prisons are filled with inmates who have not been convicted of a crime, often waiting years for their trials to start or be dismissed.
In Haiti, dismal facilities have no toilets or proper plumbing and holding cells are so crowded that many inmates take turns sleeping at night because of lack of space.
The delays have hit justice systems in even relatively wealthy Caribbean nations such as the Bahamas and Barbados. Experts say postponements are often granted by judges for the flimsiest of reasons and there’s no shortage of defense lawyers who benefit. Officials complain that a culture of delay has become chronic in courtrooms.
Wayne Munroe, a prominent attorney and former head of the Bahamas Bar Association, said some Bahamians have spent a decade waiting for trials and he estimated the criminal case backlog at around 10,000, with up to 500 open murder cases.
“There is an impact on lawlessness. A lot of people go out and think they will not be caught and if they are caught they won’t face trial,’’ Munroe said.
In Trinidad & Tobago, homicides grew by 488 percent between 1999 and 2008, the U.N. Development Program says. And, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the murder rate in Jamaica was 52.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, compared to 4.8 per 100,000 in the United States.
Violence has also rocked Puerto Rico, where the National Guard was activated in 2010 to fight soaring violent crime rates.
Since the 1980s, drug traffickers have helped drive up crime by introducing narcotics with a street value exceeding the size of the Caribbean’s legal economy.
Even with drug seizures diminishing by 71 percent between 1997 and 2009, as contraband shifted to Central American routes, lethal violence increased, partly due to frenzied competition for turf in a diminished illicit market.
Exacerbating the problem are court systems that already barely functioned before they were hit by the drug cases.
Judges and prosecutors blame staff shortages and underfinanced courts, while citizens cite incompetence, corruption, tardy forensic and ballistic reports and archaic courts relying on paper and ink instead of computers.
Even impaneling juries can be a challenge in Jamaica, where many people will feign illness to avoid jury duty and the paltry daily subsistence allowances that come with it.
Complicating matters further, a large number of randomly selected jurors never even get their summons to appear, in the first place. The Jamaican police unit responsible for serving the notices says it has only one car to do its work.
Officials in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are trying to speed up justice by pushing for legislative amendments to eliminate preliminary inquiries, which determine if the state has enough evidence to justify a trial, and reduce the number of matters that require trial by jury, a hallmark of British common law and the basis for many countries’ justice systems.
For Johnson, government pledges to improve the system ring hollow. Like many other impoverished Jamaicans, she’s convinced that the system is rigged against her.
“In this country,” she said, holding a photo of her slain 21-year-old son, “justice is never for the poor.”
AP writers Trenton Daniel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Jeff Todd in Nassau, Bahamas, contributed to this report.