Mon | Jul 23, 2018

Editiorial | Crime, Constitution and corruption

Published:Friday | February 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The proof of the pudding, the saying goes, is in the eating.

So we will await the dish that is actually served by Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his attorney general, Marlene Malahoo Forte, before deciding on its quality. Mrs Malahoo Forte has promised that it will be more palatable than what was on offer a half-year ago. The Government's new anti-crime plan will, at least, be constitutional.

Jamaica's crime crisis long predates Mr Holness, and its resolution has eluded multiple administrations. But Mr Holness cavalierly used silly campaign talk that trivialised the scale of the problem and exacerbated pressure on himself.

Unfortunately, homicides in 2016 increased by a fifth, to more than 1,350, pushing the murder rate back past 50 per 100,000, which is well past what University of the West Indies (UWI) social anthropologist Herbert Gayle advised was the benchmark for civil war - 30/100,000. In the midst of last year's surge in murder and the Government's search for answers, Mrs Malahoo Forte warned of interventions that could mean "fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to Jamaicans may be abrogated, abridged or infringed".

At the time, the police were angling for new, sweeping powers of arrest and bail before having hard information with which to charge people. On the face of it, the Government is proposing a watered-down application of the idea, but within the confines of the Constitution, as part of its response to a rise in domestic violence against women and children.

In the circumstance where the threat or likelihood of domestic violence is imminent, the police have been told to detain "aggressors" for a "cooling-off" period. The Government, for this, is apparently relying for cover under Section 14 (1) (f) (ii) of the Constitution, which allows for a person to be deprived of his liberty "... where it is reasonably necessary to prevent his committing of an offence".


Back door to rights breaches?


Any robust use of this constitutional exception to civil liberty has to be matched by aggressive oversight to ensure people's right of access to family, lawyers, and in accordance with Section 14 (3) (a) (i), to be "brought forthwith or as soon as is reasonably possible before an officer authorised by law or a court", or (ii) "released unconditionally or upon reasonable conditions to secure his attendance at the trial ...".

The point is that this constitutional opening ought not to be a back-door reintroduction of the notorious Suppression of Crime Act of the 1970s, whose near quarter-century of existence coincided with an inexorable rise in murder, and whose real contribution was to the constabulary's loss of the art and skill of investigation and the hardening of its muscular, paramilitary tactics.

Moreover, such tactics, as Dr Gayle pointed out in his series of articles in this newspaper recently, are, at best, effective only for a short time. While building the intelligence capabilities and enhancing the mobility of the police are vital, more holistic interventions, including rescuing boys and young men in inner-city communities from abuse, are critical.

Important to fighting crime is public trust in government. Citizens must believe that they repose confidence in their government; that it will not be mired in corruption; that their country won't slide 14 places on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index; or that international parties won't be sceptical of the basis on which telecoms' operating licences are awarded. This approach demands extraordinary leadership from the prime minister.