Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Editorial | Detention policy needs oversight

Published:Monday | February 13, 2017 | 2:00 AM

We are happy for Robert Montague's explanation about what the proposed use by the police of preventative detention is not, or ought not, to be.

"... (It) doesn't mean throwing a person into a lock-up and closing the cell," the national security minister said. More likely, it will mean having someone sitting in a station house for a couple of hours, a "cooling-off period ... to prevent a major crime from happening".

We are not satisfied. We demand more.

Mr Montague essentially echoed Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte's perspective on what the administration casts as its innovative tool against either the wave of domestic- abuse cases in the society, or perhaps the general upward spiral of crime. The specifics remain hazy.

What, however, is clear is that in Jamaica, the implementation of policy is often at odds with intent. In this case, there is the potential for the abuse of people's constitutional right, except in limited circumstances, to liberty. This concern has great resonance given Mrs Malahoo Forte's suggestion, last year, that the Government's fight against crime could mean "fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to Jamaicans may be abrogated, abridged or infringed".

We appreciate the crisis of crime facing Jamaica. More than 1,350 people were murdered in 2016. The homicide rate was upwards of 50 per 100,000, or, as the University of the West Indies (UWI) social anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle told us, above the benchmark of 30 per 100,000 for characterisation as civil war levels. Worse, our homicide rate has been much higher..

It is, nonetheless, our view that the abrogation, abridgement or infringement of guaranteed constitutional rights as a matter of government policy is an intellectually lazy response to an intractable problem. Such approaches have not worked in the past and must not be reprised. For decades, Jamaica maintained the infamous now-repealed Suppression of Crime Act. It allowed the police wide powers of search, detention and arrest. But that law coincided with a period of a sharp rise in homicides and a decline in the police's clear-up rate for crime. They appeared to lose whatever capacity they previously had to investigate and solve crimes.

 

BACK-DOOR PROXY

 

So, while we appreciate the constitutional authority of the police to deprive persons of their liberty "where it is reasonably necessary to prevent ... committing of an offence", this must not be a back-door proxy for the Suppression of Crime Act.

Mr Montague must, therefore, ensure that the police keep a registry of all persons detained under these provisions, including information on where these persons are or were held, the conditions under which they were detained, for what, and for how long. This registry should be open to public review, or at least for daily inspection by a group of authorised persons who can bring transparency to the process. Any such registry, though, must not obviate an individual's right to legal counsel of his choice, or access to his family or other person.

Even as Mr Montague pursues this matter, there is another on which we seek his clarification. Based on the previous statement by the administration, we had expected a substantial hike in this year's Budget for national security. However, the Estimates tabled in Parliament last week suggest a 6.4 per cent decline in the ministry's budget in the previous financial year and two per cent above what was initially allocated.