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EDITORIAL - When Mr Ellington gets his anti-gang law

Published:Friday | February 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Owen Ellington, Jamaica's police chief, has talked about few things nearly as much as the constabulary's need for special legislation with which to confront the island's criminal gangs, which are blamed for as much as 80 per cent of the country's crime and three-quarters of its murders.

Mr Ellington launched that campaign more than six years ago, when, still a deputy commissioner of police, he called for something akin to America's RICO (racketeer influence and corrupt organisation) law.

"That kind of legislation, where we can criminalise criminal gangs and we can criminalise membership in a gang," he argued in a newspaper interview, was "urgent" given the "transformation of the Jamaican criminal landscape from individualistic one-to-one crimes to group offences or gang crimes".

Just recently, as guest of this newspaper, he was at it again when he welcomed the fact that a bill, which was before Parliament for several months, was about to be debated.

The House has now passed the bill and it presently heads to the Senate where, given the almost unanimity with which it was approved in the lower chamber, the law is expected to find swift passage.

So, while lawmakers excised a provision that would prohibit the use of any "identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or physical marker", or the production of songs that "promote or facilitate" the activities of criminal organisations, the police will still have a powerful tool in their kit.

For instance, groups of three or more persons, whether or not formally organised, which come together to commit crimes will be deemed gangs, and membership in, or association with, such groups can carry long jail terms.

In essence, the tentacles of the law are long and varied, allowing the constabulary to attack the problem of gangs - which reputedly number more than 200 in Jamaica - from several fronts, and at various levels.

The issue for Mr Ellington and his constables is the effect to which they will enforce this law once it is finally approved. They will have five years to demonstrate its worth before the legislation is to be reviewed by Parliament.

Liberal campaigners expect little to be achieved from the law, except the oppression and stigmatisation of poor, unemployed youth in Jamaica's inner-city communities. Others are equally cynical for different reasons. They point to Jamaica's myriad bits of anti-crime legislation, usually hailed as the vital antidote to crime, and that little usually changes.

More than 1,200 people are murdered in Jamaica annually, for a homicide rate of around 45 per 100,000. Hardly more than one-third of those murders are cleared up by the police; only a handful of cases ever reach court; and few of the perpetrators of crime are ever convicted.

Having got what he wants, Mr Ellington has lots to prove.

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