Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Editorial | Mr Holness doesn’t need a new law

Published:Friday | March 24, 2017 | 3:00 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness' proposed new law to tackle Jamaica's crime contains a potentially redeeming feature. Among its declared objectives is to "promote social and economic development in a zone through the efforts of various government agencies and civil society".

So, at a glance, the idea of these special zones, which the prime minister and his National Security Council (NSC) will declare for operations by the security forces, resembles a scheme this newspaper borrowed from Brazil, where thousands of special police units have entered and 'pacified' Rio's crime-riddled favelas, while being at the forefront of community-renewal efforts.

The long-term jury remains out on the Rio experiment, especially in the face of the recent uptick in crime in the city. But there is hardly any doubt about the success of the project over its first six years or so, when homicides in Rio slums more than halved.

This bill doesn't oblige the Government to do anything concrete about upgrading or rebuilding infrastructure in the declared zones of special operations, except to appoint social-intervention committees to gather inventories of the problems faced by the communities and make recommendations for their solutions. Many such analyses and recommendations already exist, and are only awaiting implementation. No new law is needed for this to happen.

Neither is additional legislation required to go after gangs or other criminals. Except, perhaps, in this case, for the creation of psychology of a state of public emergency, and to allow for the exercise of some of the powers thereof, without the rigour of convincing the public and Parliament of the need of such action and the danger of reinforcing some of the old bad habits of policing in Jamaica.

Under Jamaica's Constitution, the Government, via the governor general, can in the face of some perilous circumstances, declare a state of emergency for up to 14 days, or for up to three months on the vote of the two-thirds of the members of both houses of Parliament. It can be further extended by a similar vote of the legislature.

 

Civil liberties

 

A state of emergency allows for the suspension of some civil liberties, including expanded powers of detention and searches without warrant - the latter a power the police already enjoy in circumstances where a crime is being committed or, on the reasonable suspicion that one has been, or is about to be committed.

States of emergencies tend to allow for a looser interpretation of these statutes, but the Emergency Powers Act demands that the governor general issue regulations for the management of emergency powers, as well as makes clear that each operation, and therefore its regulations, is separate from the other.

Mr Holness' proposed law, which can be imposed on a community for 60 days, and extended, if required, does not offer all the powers of a state of public emergency. It, however, she goes a good way towards it, including the right of the security forces not only to cordon a "zone of operation", but to impose curfews without reference to, or approval from the minister.

Despite the presumed checks and balances in the bill, and the attempts to skirt constitutional pitfalls, there are legitimate concerns that the law could provide a back-door return of the notorious Suppression of Crime Act that gave the police almost unfettered powers of search and arrest, but lost the skills of investigation and the powers of restrain.