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Editorial | The PNP’s crime conference

Published:Tuesday | July 30, 2019 | 12:00 AM

We, too, like Delroy Chuck, would have preferred if it were a civil-society group or some other independent organisation, rather than the political Opposition, hosting what the People’s National Party (PNP) calls a national stakeholder conference on crime in Jamaica.

But it is what it is, and Mr Chuck, the justice minister, can’t expect to eat his cake and have it, too. For it was in the remit of the Government to organise such a conference, which it undertook to do, in the context of the Vale Royal Talks between the Government and the Opposition, only to stall on the matter for half a year.

Additionally, 17 months ago, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) had to shelve its own crime summit when the Government bailed at the last minute, claiming the talks’ timing conflicted with legislative agenda for laws relating to national security. Ostensibly, the appropriate people from Government and the national-security apparatus wouldn’t have been available for the two-day session. It might have been the case, too, that the administration had not, as yet, crystallised its ideas for dealing with the island’s crisis of criminal violence.

Mr Chuck apparently now fears that the PNP will have the imprimatur of the conference – especially if legitimised by the presence of serious people – to weaponise the crime issue against a Government that, while in Opposition, sometimes trivialised a complex problem. There is little doubt that the PNP, and especially the party’s leader, Peter Phillips, who faces an internal challenge, hopes to extract advantage from the conference, but he must be aware that the affair will be bereft of credibility if there is an open play to partisanship. In such an event, invitees could well walk out or disavow the event.

Much, however, will depend on how the conference is organised and led. For there are serious matters at hand that demand rigorous analysis and debate. What is beyond debate is that violent crime in Jamaica is not a new phenomenon; that it transcends political administrations; and that it represents a deep national crisis.

Indeed, in the last decade, up to the end of 2018, there were approximately 13,000 homicides in Jamaica, or an average of 1,300 a year, even with a 22 per cent decline in murders last year. The homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 – it reached as high as 63 in 2005 – is among the worst in the world.

The Government has in the last two years turned to the imposition of states of public emergency –which give the security forces authority to infringe on constitutional rights, including enhanced powers of search and detention – as its primary strategy for tackling the problem. Prime Minister Andrew Holness has suggested that this tool may be employed for up to seven years, until crime is ‘normalised’ and murders fall to around 500 a year, or the regional average of 13/100,000.

Possible implications

There are many, including this newspaper, who are concerned about the possible implications of this approach to constitutional order, especially if the power of deployment were to fall into the hands of persons, either in the political directorate or the security forces, who may not share the same commitment to democracy as the persons now in charge. Further, there has been the absence of a robust policy discourse on how to transform a notoriously corrupt police force, or whether what now exists can be rescued. Nor have we talked sufficiently about the several moving parts of the Government that have to be synchronised for any plan to fight crime to be really effective.

Today’s conference, therefore, should be the start of a broader dialogue on a problem that affects all Jamaicans. Maybe the next round will be convened under a broader tent to achieve what the PSOJ had hoped for: a bipartisan commitment to a series of strategies with which to confront a major scourge.