Editorial | Expand trauma support, justice plan
Last week’s graduation, and deployment in St James, of 20 people with skills to provide initial psychological support in communities facing trauma must be urgently scaled up and rolled out nationally as part of the Government’s anti-crime effort.
Additionally, this project, which within the national security ministry’s citizen security plan ought to link seamlessly with the justice ministry’s restorative justice programme, which, too, is in need of a rapid community and school-anchored expansion.
Called psychological first aid responders, the group that last week completed weeks-long training and learned methods to help individuals and families cope with the trauma of criminal violence and other situations that cause hurt and distress. They have been assigned to various government agencies and institutions where their expertise is most likely to be called upon.
We suspect that matters relating to criminal violence, especially gang feuds, more than anything else, are what will keep them busy. This project was no doubt launched in St James because of the north-western parish’s recent history of high levels of homicides, initially triggered by rivalry between gangs that scammed mostly older Americans out of millions of dollars by claiming to their victims that they had won sweepstakes but had to pay fees to collect their winnings. Further, St James, and its capital, Montego Bay, provide a relatively easy jump-off point to the rest of western Jamaica, which has become the epicentre of lottery scamming activities.
The initiative is noteworthy for at least the fact that it points to the apparent softening of the scepticism the national security minister, Horace Chang, used to harbour towards social intervention schemes as tools against Jamaica’s high level of crime, which produces nearly 1,500 homicides annually. Not too long ago Dr Chang was arguing that Jamaica would have had a better grip on the crisis had it spent on the police force the billions of dollars that over several years it poured into social programmes.
But speaking at last week’s launch of the initiative Dr Chang said: “... I’m confident that these psychological first responders will contribute significantly to reducing the level of distress caused by traumatic events in and around the communities.”
It is likely, too, as has been the case with similar programmes in other jurisdictions, that it will also contribute, over time, to a narrowing of the cycle of violence. Early support that helps to cushion the pain and anger triggered by violence tends to cool the immediate passion for reprisal, reduces the likely development of post-traumatic stress disorders and possibly make victims more receptive to other forms of justice and longer-term psychological help.
These symptoms of violence and trauma are common to communities across Jamaica, especially those in the grip of urban blight and where criminal gangs hold sway. Other residents often become victims or unwitting pawns to the actions of gangs.
What Jamaica therefore needs – along with the an effective constabulary – isn’t 20 of these first aid psychological responders in St James, but thousands fanned out across the island – brigades that also attend to some of the crime-spot interventions that used to be done by the disbanded Peace Management Initiative.
Some of these interveners could possibly be assigned to work with the constabulary in circumstances where their skills can be used to de-escalate potentially volatile situations and limit the use of force.
OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
The policymakers should see this initiative as the other side of the coin of Justice Minister Delroy Chuck’s restorative justice programme, which is aimed at helping the victims and perpetrators of hurt to resolve issues, and achieve justice, outside the formal, and often too slow and expensive, court system.
Last September, Mr Chuck disclosed that his ministry had signed a memorandum of understanding with 13 churches with around 3,000 congregations to train up to 25 members of each congregation in restorative justice skills. The sums suggest that around 75,000 church members could have the skills to act as restorative justice interveners, added to around 3,000 teachers and students who were already similarly trained.
There has been no recent update on how that initiative has advanced. However, the project, and the implied number – and very likely more – are needed.
Across Jamaica small disputes quickly erupt into major violent actions. People who believe they are wronged and disrespected perceive little option for justice, except through their own hands.
Restorative justice offers an option to put things right outside the stiff formality of courts, allowing all parties to feel that they have had a genuine opportunity to be heard.
However, as we proposed before, the restorative justice delivery system should be tweaked to better fit the time and schedules of the people and communities it is supposed to serve. The community justice centres, and the people who man them, as well as the volunteers, can’t abide normal office hours. They have to be available when they are needed – including in the evenings and at night when the people involved in disputes are likely to be available, to resolve issues. Immediate or very early intervention is often a requirement to prevent the escalation of conflict.
That is why there is a need for many skilled restorative justice interlocutors.