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Editorial | What Justice Panton got wrong

Published:Tuesday | August 16, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Justice Seymour Panton
Justice Seymour Panton

Seymour Panton, the former president of Jamaica’s Court of Appeal, was a jurisprudentially sound and respected judge, who continues to do decent work as chairman of the Integrity Commission (IC). His feisty interventions on public matters are mostly sound, such as his support, repeated in an interview with this newspaper last week, for Jamaica’s accession to the criminal and civil jurisdictions of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the island’s final court. Jamaica is already a member of the court in its original jurisdiction as arbiter of the treaty on which the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) exists.

His prodding of the authorities for laws to both strengthen and make more transparent the work of the IC is another example of the former long-standing willingness to lock horns with power – and, for that matter, almost anyone else – in pursuit of what he believes to be principled and right. On the matter of the IC, like with the CCJ, Justice Panton is on firm ground.

We agree, too, with the retired justice’s out-of-hand rejection that Jamaican judges are deliberately or inherently biased against poor people or harbour class prejudices in their rulings. “It is a myth to believe that the judges look to see whether you are from Constant Spring, or Stony Hill, or wherever,” he said. Which is not the same thing as a disputation over whether there is systemic bias in the justice system against poor people – as opposed to the prejudices of judges. That matter was not addressed.

Sometimes, though, Justice Panton gets it all wrong, going over the bend and into the deep end – as happened in the same interview with The Gleaner. He offered a far less-than-nuanced analysis of why more Jamaicans do not report crimes of which they are aware and to which they may be eyewitnesses. Essentially, Justice Panton engaged in an episode of victim shaming. Some might even claim he was on a path to revictimising the victims.

CRIMINALITY

Jamaica suffers high levels of criminality, much of it violent. There are more than 1,300 murders in the island annually. The country’s homicide rate, at around 50 per 100,000, is among the world’s worst. The police claim to clear up around half of the murders. However, given the relatively broad definition of a cleared-up case, it is widely believed that these statistics are infused with a heavy dose of steroids.

Further, while the specific data are not readily available, relatively few homicide cases reach court, and often face long delays before they are heard. A significant proportion of the cases end in acquittals. Justice Panton blamed this, to a substantial degree, on the failure of witnesses to report and give evidence about what they know.

“Whether we want to accept it or not, a significant part of the population supports criminality,” he said. “I believe that a significant segment of the country supports criminality because they see things and they say nothing.”

He also ridiculed people who appear on television “jumping up and down about incidents” but do not give formal statements to law enforcement. He added: “There are people who will say there are a lot of gunmen going around doing this and that, but I always wonder, how is it that people are only hearing gunshots but are not seeing the gunmen and they are right there in the communities”?

Justice Panton’s statements are consequential on several fronts. We start with the fact that he is an influential person who is in a position to help shape how the society perceives issues and how policymakers respond to them. In this case, he has largely placed the blame for crime on people who live in communities that suffer disproportionately from the problem. And let’s be frank, he was talking primarily about depressed urban communities, where violent gangs, and other criminals who cause mayhem, tend to hold sway.

Further, while he did not define what amounts to a “significant part of the population”, it is not unreasonable to assume, given the context of his remarks, that Justice Panton meant that large swathes of the population willingly, and readily, embrace and give succour to criminals and criminality.

DEEPER ANALYSIS

Even if that were true, we would expect a deeper analysis of cause and effect from someone of Justice Panton’s stature, intellect, and influence. It would be helpful, for instance, if he explained if that “significant part”of the population that are either welcoming, or indifferent, to criminals are coerced into their attitudes because of the environment in which they live.

In other words, should we – and does Justice Panton – dismiss that armed gangsters, even if relatively few, compared to the rest of the citizenry, hold whole communities in thrall, with credible threats to limbs and life?

There are issues, too, relating to the evolution of politics in Jamaica, with its corralling of some areas into zones of political exclusion – the so- called garrison constituencies – where voters are intimidated into support for one or the other political party, enforced by thugs with allegiance to either of the sides. This nexus between crime and politics, the experts say, may be receding, but the strong-armed men still linger – and hold sway.

Perhaps more critical to this debate is the low levels of trust most Jamaicans have for institutions of the State because they perceive them, not without justification perhaps, to be corrupt. The police are more badly stained than others with this perception. Indeed, part of the reason why that “ significant part of the population” not only refuses to report crime, even when it is against themselves, is for fear that nothing will come of it; and worse, that their complaints, and the evidence they give, will be immediately leaked to the perpetrators of the crime.

This behaviour, however, is not limited to those communities where “people jump up and down” complaining about crime and in demand for justice. The anecdotal evidence suggests that it is everywhere.

Of course, it would be good if more people reported crime, swore affidavits, and went to court to give evidence. But people first have to trust the institutions that facilitate this kind of civic-minded behaviour, confident that when they do what is right it will not compromise their safety.

In that respect, Justice Panton’s analysis fell short. In concert with his critique of people’s attitude must be a demand for the fixing of the key institutions of law enforcement and justice – similar to what he insists on for the Integrity Commission.