Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Bobby's big breeches

Published:Sunday | March 20, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Martin Henry
Robert Montague, minister of national security.
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Our reluctant new national security minister has been making some early moves that warm the heart of this chronic advocate of making public safety, and law and order, and justice the number one priority of the Government of Jamaica as its core function.

Former Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington, who was starved of resources while in office and finally broken by the job and sent packing into early retirement, speaking at a University of Technology, Jamaica forum on Economic Growth and Sustainability last Wednesday, called upon the new Government to make national security a priority on par with economic growth. The ex-commissioner made again that clear link between security and economic performance.

Robert Montague telling Prime Minister Holness that he didn't want the job of national security minister is perfectly understandable. If crime reduction, increased public safety and law and order are the measures of success, all his predecessors, running back decades, have been failures.

I like Bobby Montague's simple measure of success on the job. No big and dazzling crime reduction statistics. "Success for me," he told this newspaper in his first interview, "would look like when Miss Hilda in Dias, Hanover, or in St Thomas, can go to church, praise her God, and come home without fear of criminal elements; or when the ordinary Jamaican can wake up and go about their lawful business without a thought of criminal activity." In the two weeks since Minister Montague has been sworn in, at least 30 more Jamaicans have been murdered. Not much comfort to Miss Hilda.

Minister Montague has made it quite clear that he is not responsible for operations within the Jamaica Constabulary Force. "I have confidence in the commissioner of police ... and I intend to give him that space to operate, and, therefore, you won't see me running all over the country at every crime scene because I am not a police officer. I will hold Dr (Carl) Williams accountable based on the policy that we have, and we will give him the necessary resources and support ... ."

GREATER PUBLIC SAFETY

Quick on the draw, the minister has signed off on a multifaceted anti-crime campaign developed by the Police High Command to crack down on hardened criminals, serious crimes, and quality-of-life offences nationwide. The minister is gunning for greater public safety as a top priority. Which is the real bottom line for law enforcement, and which Miss Hilda is dying to have.

When the rubber hits the road, the security forces are going to need those "necessary resources" in order to get done the onerous job of increasing public safety and restoring and enforcing law and order as the national norm. The police sometimes don't have vehicles, tyres and gas.

The national security and justice ministries are tasked with the most basic public interest purpose and function of any government - maintaining law and order, ensuring public safety, protecting life and property, and delivering of justice. It is an economic issue. It is an educational issue. It is a social issue. It is a human-rights issue. So top-slice a small percentage of every other budget line and repurpose it to financing these core functions of the state for the benefit of all across all portfolios.

This small 'tax' on all other sectors in the Budget to underwrite the costs of improving law and order, public safety and justice would yield high dividends for all.

I have done a bit of pencilling out based on the 2015-2016 Budget of $640 billion. A relatively painless across-the-board 2.5 per cent slice of this year's Budget would yield an additional $16 billion. This would not be an insubstantial increment to National Security and Justice when you look at their actual allocations for the year, as well as for some crime-reducing social interventions. National Security was allocated $51.8 billion and Justice $6.8 billion. We would be looking at a 27 per cent topping-up of the combined budgets. Keep this up for a few years.

CONTROL WITH PRESENCE

The security forces, by simply being there, need to take back the towns and streets of Jamaica, the public spaces which the public authority should control. The forces must move to take control of the town centres and commercial hubs and transport centres of major townships by their sheer presence. They must control with presence the known urban crime hotspots.

They must take out of circulation crime leaders and gang leaders on even minor but stickable offences. They must police the softer quality of life laws as well, which will not only improve quality of life but send a massive national signal of seriousness of intent in restoring law and public order.

The creaking justice system, as is, cannot handle all of this new pressure which aggressive policing would thrust upon it. We need more prison space and 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.

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. We will need to appoint more magistrates.

The reluctant national security

minister must not be given basket to carry water. He will fail to deliver on the public safety priority which is a

commitment - and a duty - of his Government.

n Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and

medhen@gmail.com.