As the news of William Agius being sentenced to prison for three years for a crime he committed 14 years ago hit home, it came as no surprise to anyone who follows the Maltese justice system that the court was going to come down hard on him.
Known for its generally conservative stance towards drug cases, the Maltese courts are a projection of the Maltese sense of justice. There have been cases – often times, violent cases that would have been a no-brainer in other countries – that have been given lenience, to the outcry of the Maltese people.
But then there are many more cases that, once again, seem obvious to any outsider looking in. Take William Agius’ case. He is guilty of a crime, and that’s indisputable – selling over 2,000 ecstasy pills is a criminal offence no matter how you spin it.
Similarly, take Daniel Holmes. Growing five cannabis plants and 23 seedlings is, once again, a crime under Maltese law, no matter what you say.
That’s not the problem here. The problem is, how do we treat these people once they are caught?
To punish or to reform?
Many Maltese people see justice in sheer black and white terms: he did the crime, he does the time. But such a simple worldview is neither realistic nor, in effect, logical – and can lead a country down a dangerous path of skewed justice.
But this is an age old conundrum – what should a country’s justice system do with its criminals? Some countries, notably Central European and Scandinavian countries – have lowered their prisoner rates, as well as lowered their reoffender rate, by taking unique approaches to prisoners.
In Norway, they treat prisoners “like people”, and in the Netherlands law enforcement “prefers rehabilitation to incarceration,” with the Dutch taking a very pragmatic approach to what is obviously a societal, not individual, problem.
However, the closer you get to the equator, the more it seems that a holistic approach isn’t considered – and nowhere is this more evident than in Malta.
Whereas the Netherlands is renting out prison cells to Belgium because they are so successful with turning their criminals into productive members of society, Malta is doing the exact opposite: turning productive members of society into criminals.
William Agius committed a crime 14 years ago. In that time, his story could have been a plot to a film: he went through rehab successfully, went teetotal, and opened up his own restaurant where he became an employer. His story has inspired others to better themselves.
In countries like the Netherlands, this is the goal. In Malta, this means nothing. In their eyes, he is the drug trafficker of 14 years ago, and he needs to be sent to a prison that is notorious for being full of drugs.
It didn’t matter than society cried for mercy to be shown to a clearly reformed man – it didn’t matter that the Prime Minister had said that he was losing sleep over the case, nor that he appeared on national television to successfully please his case before the nation.
William Agius is now condemned to 3 years in jail – a 3 year term that will benefit absolutely no-one, tear a family apart, and worst of all, show a Maltese citizen that no matter what he does, he will always be judged by a mistake he did when he was young.
Daniel Holmes getting married while in prison in Malta
The wait is half the punishment
Maltese courts also have another stunning feature that brings its own problems – the wait times between being caught, and being tried for the crime. You might think that a case like William Agius’ isn’t rare, but in most drug cases, years of anxious waiting is just the first part of dealing with the Maltese justice system.
Lovin Malta spoke to a James*, a Maltese man who was arrested in 2011 as part of a planned raid. He was caught with ten ecstasy pills, but was charged with “selling cannabis, selling cannabis near a school, selling LSD, aiding of importation of LSD, selling of pills, and aiding and importation…fucking drug kingpin ġabuni,” he told Lovin Malta.
“Every time I see a police car my heart stops,” he said, “and even to this day knowing I’m doing nothing wrong I get anxious and stressed.”
The police had come to the conclusion that he was a major kingpin in Malta due to another man the police had caught telling them James was a major importer to save his own skin.
They were both 18-years old at the time.
“It’s not the nicest thing to happen, seeing your mother broken down in tears looking at her ‘drug dealer’ son being raided by four policemen,” he says, remember the day they raided his house in front of his parents.
Since then, he’s been paraded through the justice system, like a trophy of the war against drugs.
Yet, he still has no idea what’s happening in his case. Every time he has a sitting, it is deferred, and his lawyers are just as lost as he is.
“It’s always a cancer at the back of my mind,” he said, “not knowing what can happen or will happen. The wait ruins your life – you can’t commit to a career because it is shameful, you have to take days off and when they ask you ‘why?’ you have to say ‘court’…then one fine day they can decide to put you in jail for a mistake you made 5 or 10 years ago.”
This is exactly what happened to Daniel Holmes, who infamously showed up for a court case one day, expecting it to be deferred, only to be sentenced to over a decade in jail, with none of his family in the courtrooms to even see him off in his last few minutes of freedom.
“They pull you out of your established life, and you wonder ‘what’s going to happen next year?’ One fine day I’ll have to go to my boss and tell him ‘listen I have to stop working with you.’ I can’t have the life I want and need because of a stupid mistake I made years ago.”
A prison cell in Corradino Correctional Facility in Malta
Turning criminals into productive members of society
Each country must decide for themselves how they want to treat the members of their society that break their laws. The severity of the punishments oftentimes reflect how progressive or traditional the country is – and how linear and inflexible a court’s judgements are will then determine how willing a court is to be innovative in their methods of rehabilitation – if that is indeed the goal of their sentencing.
Community service, fines, probation and diversionary sentencing are just some of the ways courts can be innovative in the ways they sentence guilty criminals.
On the other hand, if the goal is to punish people who might have broken the law, then raids at home, 14 years of waiting for your case to be heard, public cries falling on deaf ears, and inflexible sentencing that ends with reformed drug addicts being sent into drug dens is the way to go.
This won’t benefit society in any measurable way, but it will show how tough the courts are on drugs, which seems to be the real goal of most of these sentences.