Editorial | Cutting the roots of violence
There have been many attempts to reduce violence in Jamaica. All of them have failed. The homicide rate in 2017 was almost back to the level it reached in 2009, Jamaica's worst-ever year.
Why have they failed?
The simplest answer is that every attempt has been too simplistic. There have been initiatives to curb corruption and patronage, reform the police, improve the justice system, and channel social investment into the troubled communities, but there has never been a national programme that combined all four critical elements. There are interlocking, deep-rooted problems that sustain Jamaica's appallingly high levels of crime and violence, and all of them have to be undone if we are to make progress.
The first is the cluster of problems associated with poverty. Many of the inhabitants of poor communities are trapped in unemployment or low-wage jobs by their lack of qualification. This leaves them marginalised and dependent on patronage, which fosters low self-esteem, aggression and domestic violence. Disintegrating family structures ensure that many children do not receive an adequate education and are not socialised into patterns of work.
Many of these communities are unplanned, informal settlements, and do not have proper services, so refuse is burnt and sewage contaminates groundwater, which is hazardous to health, safety and the environment. Borrowed capital is expensive, many residents do not have land titles or collateral.
Local businesses are weakened by extortion and employers avoid setting up businesses in these areas. Entrenched poverty makes it easier for gangs to recruit, dominate areas, intimidate communities and extort vulnerable people.
The second is the mismatch between the problems that the police have to address and the allocation of crime-fighting resources. The police are under unrelenting pressure to deal with urgent problems and demands, which means that they react to events rather than prevent them. In addition, years of underinvestment, low pay and poor conditions have resulted in weak supervision, accountability and oversight, and a culture of corruption and ineptitude.
The third is that the judicial system is breaking down. The process of justice is often subject to inordinate delays. Cases are rarely processed efficiently, creating an unmanageable backlog of cases in the courts, which allows time to contaminate evidence, and bribe or murder witnesses. Partly as a result, the conviction rate for serious crimes is very low, which means that there is little deterrent effect.
Public confidence eroded
These problems undermine public confidence in the justice system, which has two harmful consequences. First, many witnesses are willing to give information to the police, but are reluctant to appear in court, because they fear that their identification will lead to reprisals, and also, vigilante justice. In some communities, suspected thieves are more likely to be beaten or killed than handed over to the police.
The fourth is that no politician has yet found the courage to name those beneficiaries of crime that sit beside them in the Parliament and Senate. There are many excellent, admirable and dedicated politicians and public servants in Jamaica, but they are often outmanoeuvred or intimidated by those who have grown rich from kickbacks or money laundering, who maintain strong links with the gunmen, and who can arrange for evidence to be lost or witnesses to disappear.
These are the four deepest roots of violent crime and all four roots must be severed if Jamaica is to be freed from the deadly tyranny of violence.