Martin Henry | Priority No. 1: fighting crime
Seeing is believing. And a promise, they say, is a comfort to a fool. But I can't resist being heartened by the news that Government plans to redirect "unprecedented" resources to fight crime. Something I have been hammering for some time.
The news comes as the country is gripped in yet another spike in murders on top of an already high homicide rate, one of the highest in the world.
Here's the minister of national security, Robert Montague, in his contribution to the Sectoral Debate earlier this month: "This administration is going to, over a three-year period, make the largest investment in the national-security apparatus in our history. Never before will so much be invested in ensuring our peace and safety. We are not talking millions, but billions. We will do so because it will be the greatest investment in our country ever. We will invest because we want a safer Jamaica, safer communities, and safer homes."
While help will be sought from external partners, the minister has committed the Government to redirecting our own resources to dealing with our own crime problem. "While our international partners can, have, and will, assist, as an independent sovereign nation, we must lead the way. We must put our money where our mouth is. Crime is our problem. We must begin to take the hard, tough choices to deal with it. We can seek assistance, but we must sacrifice, too, and invest in ourselves. There is no other way. We have to own the problem in order to solve the problem!"
And where is the money to come from, with our high debt-servicing burden, our taxed-to-the-max situation, and a very tight non-debt Budget? I have long argued that a sliver should be sliced from every other budget line and redirected to security and justice. The fundamental function of any government anywhere, any time, is law and order, public safety, justice, and protection of citizen's rights, including the core right to life and right to property. Nothing else will flourish in government plans and programmes if crime and disorder flourish.
A thin and relatively painless 2% slice across this year's $580-billion Budget would yield an extra $11.6 billion for security and justice.
The minister and the Government have seen the light - at least with one eye.
IMPORTANCE OF SECURITY
Montague indicated in his Sectoral Debate presentation that several ministries would be "holding" some of their programmes "so as to allow funding for our peace and security", because "without security, there will be no tourism, no transport, no agriculture, no jobs, no you, no me, and no Jamaica".
Tourism has already ponied up $1billion over four years, to much fanfare.
I have a problem with the volunteerism behind the contributions of the ministries. This should not be a matter of security holding the hat. The budget process should securely deliver to security and justice, as a top priority of Government, the beefed-up resources they desperately need. But a fundamental flaw in the traditional Budget process is once again exposed for fixing. The Budget is driven not by policy, but by the competing claims of ministries, departments, and agencies of Government.
Along with the current murder wave, a new wave of criticism of the corruption, competence, and capacity of the police force is engulfing us. There are even calls to put the corrupt JCF out of its misery since, it is thought, the force cannot be reformed.
This is idealism and unrealism running amok. And who will guard the guards themselves? In a widely and deeply corrupt society, the problem of corruption will only regress to another level.
Much can be done to build more transparency and accountability with public scrutiny into the operations of the police force. Transparency and accountability are the greatest weapons against corruption. The fewer than 50 men and women in the top leadership of the force - the commissioner, the deputy and assistant commissioners, the parish divisional commanders, and the commanders of the special units - should be rigidly held to task in the operations and performance of the JCF. Done!
That's how serious organisations are held to account - through focusing on the top leadership, not the rank and file.
This is something the Orville Taylor-led Committee for National Security, which has been established by the minister, should focus on. The committee has been set up to guide policy and to set standards and evaluation benchmarks, as well as to give general guidance on national security. One of the key tasks of the committee is to set a timetable for implementation of all recommendations that have been made over the last 20 years. As citizen, I have made some myself.
Banking on the minister's commitment to redirect massive budgetary resources to fight crime, the Police High Command should make clear and public what the resource needs and gaps are that the force faces in the discharge of it duties.
The minister should insist that this shopping list be accompanied by the clearest concrete operational plans, down to divisional level, for reducing crime levels, enforcing law and order, and improving public safety. And command careers should be put on the line against this command ops plan.
But we can get more out of what we have now while we wait for more to come. My column '72 hours to a safer Jamaica' last October pulled more positive feedback than most things I have written in nearly three decades. "In 72 hours, three days, for a start, Jamaica can visibly start to become a safer place, with measurable reductions starting to happen in murders, extortion, scamming, praedial larceny, robberies, traffic violations, public-transport violations, vending violations, environmental breaches, noise abatement violations. The whole gamut of crime, lawlessness, and disorder," the column argued.
We need to secure our borders from gunrunning and drug trafficking with more patrol boats. Our officers in uniform need more equipment and facilities. And we absolutely need more of these officers, perhaps twice as many. We need more capability for intelligence-driven policing and far more forensics capacity. We need more courtrooms and more judges and judicial staff. And we absolutely need more prison space. Lots more.
The security forces, by simply being there, need to take back the towns and streets of Jamaica, the public spaces, which the public authority controls. There is a psychology to crime and lawlessness that is very well known. People will push the limits and do what they can get away with without being apprehended. But people also, to an overwhelming degree, yield to visible and serious authority. And people modify their behaviour from observing exemplary cases of punishment.
Our security forces, with full respect for human rights, must move to take control of the town centres and commercial hubs and transport centres of our major townships by sheer presence.
They must control with presence the known urban crime hotspots. They must take out of circulation gang leaders on even minor but stickable offences. They must police the softer quality-of-life laws as well, which will send a massive national signal of seriousness of intent in restoring law and public order.
We will need roaming rapid response backup units.
The creaking justice system, as is, as both the minister of national security and the minister of justice clearly understand, cannot handle all of this new pressure, aggressive policing would thrust upon it. Which is one reason that serious policing isn't seriously attempted. While we await a new prison, part British-supplied or otherwise, we have to consider amnesty for short- and medium-term low-risk prisoners who have done more than half of their time. We have to think of temporary facilities but better than Tower Street and Spanish Town.
The courts will have to do a lot more non-custodial sentencing. And while not the main purpose, more fines will contribute to desperately needed public revenue.
We should freeze all old cases in the system beyond a certain cut-off date and in certain categories to be properly determined and free up court time for the fresh new cases coming in from the safer Jamaica operation.
For maximum psychological impact, not to mention maximum justice, the doctrine of habeas corpus should be strongly reinvigorated. Accused persons should be taken before a magistrate forthwith and their cases disposed of in the shortest possible time fully within the law.
We must make 119 work better. With every citizen having two cell phones, we must be encouraged to call in lawbreaking information, including by the police themselves, with the double assurance of security and quick action.
Time for a bold and broad Operation Safer Jamaica as a top priority backed by the necessary financing.