A Case for Decriminalization of Homosexuality in Jamaica

Mehri GhazanjaniBy Mehri Ghazanjani

The highlight of my work at the HIV Legal Network was the opportunity to get involved in an ongoing project aimed at bringing a constitutional to Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws. Jamaican law, and more particularly the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), criminalizes consensual sexual conduct between men (sections 76, 77, and 79). This statute has existed since 1864, when Jamaica was under British colonial rule, and has lasted since then despite Jamaica’s independence from the colonial rule in 1962. More recently, in 2011 and 2012, the Sexual Offences Act and the Sexual Offences (Registration of Sex Offenders) Regulations came into effect, requiring anyone convicted of “buggery” to be registered as a sex offender and to always carry a pass or face 12 months in prison and a J$1 million fine. These laws are collectively referred to as “anti-sodomy law.”

The Sexual Offences Act, therefore, has made Jamaican law criminalizing sex between men even harsher because conviction also means mandatory registration, and potential additional punishment, as a sex offender. Although in practice, there are few documented cases where the police or prosecutors in Jamaica have tried to charge individuals with “buggery,” it is undeniable that the mere existence of the law implies the possibility of prosecution. In addition, on a larger societal scale, it’s important to note the harmful effects of the law including the potential for its use as a pretext for harassment by police and the stigma, discrimination and violence that criminalization perpetuates and encourages.

Indeed, the anti-sodomy law is in violation of several rights guaranteed by Jamaica’s 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (e.g. the rights of Jamaicans to liberty and freedom of the person, security of the person (i.e., physical and mental integrity), equality before the law, non-discrimination on the ground of being male or female, etc.). Notably, Jamaica has recognized these human rights both in its own constitution and in international human rights treaties it has ratified. However, although according to the Jamaican Charter any person whose constitutional rights have been, are being or are likely to be violated, may bring a claim for the law to be reviewed, according to a “savings” clause in the Charter, laws relating to sexual offences are protected from constitutional review by the courts if they were in force immediately before the Charter came into effect. But if the law is “changed, adapted or modified in any respect” after the introduction of the Charter, then it is no longer insulated from such constitutional review and must conform to the Charter’s guarantees of fundamental rights and freedoms.

The case that the HIV Network is raising against the anti-sodomy laws argues that after the adoption of the 2011 Charter, the Sexual Offences Act and its regulations changed Jamaica’s criminal law regarding sexual activity between men to make it harsher and, hence, this means the law applicable to gay men’s consensual sexual activity is no longer the law that existed immediately before the Charter. Therefore, it must now conform to the human rights provisions guaranteed by Jamaica’s Constitution.

My work on the case involved two main steps: first, I looked at differences and similarities in sex offender registries (SOR) in various jurisdictions (Canada, the US, and Europe) and provided updates on the legal tests these jurisdictions have applied in their analysis of punition by researching and analyzing pertinent cases laws. More specifically, the implementations of SORs are punitive under three legal tests developed in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Although these tests were developed independently and in different jurisdictions, they all provide a framework from which the effects of SORs may be considered in exploring whether these laws impose criminal sanctions in the guise of administrative measures. These tests look beyond the legislature’s intent in creating the registry and consider what, in reality, its effects are on sex offenders. The approach adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada seems to be the most liberal perspective. In R. v. KRJ, the court suggested that prevention and punishment are not mutually exclusive and that a SOR can be punitive even if there is clear language that suggests it is only preventative [1]. This highlights the courts’ receptiveness to arguments based on the deleterious effects of sex offender registries on their registrants. In the US, in particular, some courts cast doubt on the true value of SORs and discuss the broad and destructive negative effects they can have on individuals’ lives and society as a whole [2].

This brings me to the second step of my work: I conducted secondary research of sociology and psychology journals to explore the real-life effects of sex offender registration on various aspects of offenders’ lives (e.g. employment, housing, mental health, social isolation) to demonstrate the continued punitive nature of these laws on the offenders. For example, studies suggest that among different types of felons, society tends to stigmatize sex offenders the most, so reintegration can be challenging for these individuals [3]. As a result, sex offenders often experience isolation, shame, depression, and apprehension due to the public registration requirement [4]. Further, in order to successfully reintegrate, an offender must conform to societal conventions by securing adequate housing, maintaining rewarding employment, forming positive interpersonal relationships, and avoiding recidivism [5]. Sex offenders are often stigmatized in society as the public nature of their offense leads to these individuals becoming labeled as pedophiles or perverts by their communities even if their offense did not involve minors or sexual assault. These labels and stigmas, as will be discussed below, inhibit their ability to successfully reintegrate [6]. More particularly, in Jamaica, registrants are required to carry on their person at all times a Certificate of Registration of Sex Offender. In addition, because of the availability of the information to a number of parties such as employers, the private nature of registries can often be meaningless once information is released in a community. These elements of SORs make them highly punitive in nature.

Our hope is that the Court will ultimately decide the SORs have so fundamentally changed the anti-sodomy laws that the laws are no longer the ones that were put in place before the adoption of the Charter (and hence saved by the savings clause). The goal of the challenge is to have the court bring the law into conformity with the Charter. I am glad that I will continue my work on this case at the HIV Legal Network as a volunteer and will observe new developments as the case unfolds in the future.

[1] R v KRJ, 2016 SCC 31, at para 22 [KRJ].

[2] See Smith v Doe, 538 US 84, 123 SCt 1140 [2003].

[3] Fox, K.J. (2015). Contextualizing the policy and pragmatics of reintegrating sex offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 1-23; Prescott, J.J. (2016).

[4] Bitna, K., Benekos, P., & Merlo, A. (2016). Sex offender recidivism revisited: Review of recent meta-analyses on the effects of sex offender treatment. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 17(1), 105-117.

[5] Hunter, B. A., Lanza, A.S., Lawlor, M., Dyson, W., & Gordon, D.M. (2015). A strengths-based approach to prisoner reentry: The fresh start prisoner reentry program.

[6] Visgaitis, R. L. (2011). Retroactive application of the sex offender registration and notification act: A modern encroachment on judicial power. Columbia Journal of Law & Social Problems, 45(2), 273-302.

 

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