Letters & Opinion

Politicizing and Criminalizing of Crime-fighting Unavoidable and Unhelpful

By Earl Bousquet

CARIBBEAN people continue to treat crime and the general fight against it as a political issue, counting on political parties, governments and police forces to ‘bring an end’ to it or ‘bring it under control’. Political parties are therefore elected partly on the basis of promises to do all the above — none of which is possible — then voters blame ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ when there’s no change for the better.

At the end of each year, parties and people across the region compare annual crime statistics, starting with the number of ‘homicides’ and breaking-down ‘the figures’ according to how they ‘died’ or who did the ‘killing’, comparing ‘the stats’ from the previous year – and congratulating or blaming according to which party the critic supports.

‘Same Ole…’
‘The numbers’ are treated like they represent marbles. Or mangoes. Not people.

Parties elected to govern are naturally expected to institute promised manifesto measures to better the statistical performance of their predecessors, so new governments (every five years) opt for new approaches that always yield the ‘same ole’ results.

The effectiveness of all crime-fighting measures is therefore assessed mainly on the basis of the ‘homicide rate’.

Older Caribbean citizens never thought or dreamt of going to bed every night praying and giving thanks just for being alive – and silently wondering who will die tomorrow.

Hardly a day passes (these days) without hearing about someone killed somewhere through acts of violence ranging from violence against women and youth gang warfare to extrajudicial and other police shootings or unresolved deaths that end-up clogging Cold Case files.

Statistics of Death
Example: Saint Lucia started 2020 with the usual comparisons of the ‘murder rates’ since ‘the second half of June 2016’ (when the last General Elections took place) and the usual annual comparisons of 2017, 2018 and 2019 figures.

With General Elections due in 2021, crime fighting and reduction will again be politicized throughout the respective campaigns assessing the statistics of death.

Voters in 2016 naturally fell for the better-sounding promises; and in 42 months the government has changed old policies and implemented new ones, engaged in public consultations, increased the number of police on the beat and resurrected the municipal City Constabulary (now called the City Police).

But even with two police forces and more officers on the pavements, people’s yardsticks, shaped over time by statistical comparisons, continue to remain devoid of acknowledgement that it’s other people’s lives that are being measured.

Caribbean governments, parties and people continue to approach crime just like they traditionally do ‘criminals’ – as something undesirable always to be abhorred — but without looking behind the figures at the fact that the statistics actually represent people.

Caribbean governments continue to build ‘bigger and better’ prisons while the justice system is fiddled-with over time to adjust to the never-ending changes in the varying faces of crime.

As the concept of ‘Blue Collar’ and ‘White Collar’ crime fades away in the face of Cyber-related and IT-assisted crimes, people, parties and governments everywhere continue to forget that criminals are also (and will also always be) people with minds and brains as well.

But it will take more than just the usual ‘Crime and Punishment’ approach to start denting Caribbean crime, which is why no matter how many new prisons are built across the region, they will all eventually end-up being overcrowded more with people unable to pay fines than persons doing time for violent crime.

Caribbean people have basically run-out of patience with the out-of-control violent-crime death-rates that continue to haunt some countries more than others.

… Forever Present
But, like Poverty, Crime is something that has always been and will continue to be forever present in every Caribbean society, as prevailing experiences across the board have confirmed that they cannot just simply be ‘ended’, ‘reduced’ or ‘brought under control’ by Governments, Police Commissioners or National Security Ministers in the ways promised in election manifestos.

Prevailing national economic policies mainly guarantee unemployment, poverty and crime, the levels of annual statistical differences only always being marginal between governments and elections.

Some realizations and acceptance that old ways should give way to new have resulted, for example, in goals of ‘Poverty Eradication’ being adjusted to ‘Poverty Reduction’; and more governments today are depending less on the traditional estimates of national economic progress on the basis of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Same with Crime: Caribbean people continue to see Punishment as the only answer, so the argument continues to be whether or not to ‘Return to Hanging’ and what to do with persons convicted ‘For Life’ when their Freedom Day arrives.

Same with the people with negative ‘Criminal Records’ who are regarded and treated as less than equal and even less than human, hardly anyone wanting to employ or give them ‘a second chance’ at anything.

People were once sentenced to jail ‘With Hard Labour’ – to be made to ‘work hard’ behind bars while serving their long sentences, after which they were branded by the society as ‘Jail Birds for Life’, never to be trusted.

But ‘Hard Labour’ has been replaced today by languishing in wait with access to libraries with access to phone calls and TV, ‘prisoners’ now being referred to as ‘inmates’ and selective rehabilitation programmes are being employed from time to time.

But Caribbean Society continues to largely treat persons who broke the law as less deserving of second thoughts — even after paying for their crime.

Not Alone…
The Caribbean is not alone.

As overcrowded prisons continue to haunt America, prison labour is being exploited for profit by profligate private entities that underpay inmates for over-production by contracting low-pay services to prisons.

Now, persons in Mississippi guilty of owing debts can work with private companies to pay it off through a ‘restitution’ programme with conditions that see most involved preferring to serve their set jail sentences than to work nearly forever under prison-like conditions with some private freedoms in fenced settings.

Billionaire US Democratic Party presidential candidate and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently apologized for his campaign ‘unknowingly’ using prison labour to deliver campaign goods; and prison services are increasingly being privatized in more countries as nations abandon their responsibilities to ensure prison inmates are respected and treated as equal human beings, incarcerated or not.

Old Attitudes
Old attitudes still die hard across the region.

Many moons ago, Saint Lucia’s National Skills Development Center (NSDC), with assistance from USAID, launched a programme inviting local private sector businesses to ‘hire’ selected young and well-educated prison inmates (wages to be paid by USAID) to better channel positive skills wasted behind bars.

But only one businessman, Rayneau Gajadhar, was prepared to wholly endorse the programme, his company CIE Ltd. employing several inmates.

Most businesses considered the project too risky to even try, far less consider, resulting in the young men doing long sentences returning to sitting and waiting behind bars and within walls, wasting lives by only paying for crime with time.

Crime has always been glamorized by Hollywood and too many Caribbean people still pay ‘respect due’ to anyone who has survived committing a crime ‘for so long’ without being detected.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump boasted during a memorable campaign debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016 that he wasn’t ‘in jail’ (where she said she felt he should be) ‘because I’m smart!’

Crime ought not to be glamorized.

But by institutionally and mentally criminalizing thought trends and approaches to those who break the law in the ways Caribbean people and governments have always tended to, there will never be enough understanding that just as poverty cannot be erased forever in our lifetime under present conditions, so too with crime.

Like corruption which is based on a human element called greed that’s still being boasted in today’s corporate world with catch phrases like ‘Greed is good!’, crime is also committed by humans.

Can anyone think of a country without crime? Where there is no need for police, prisons or courts, magistrates or judges, lawyers or prison officers?

Not even dreams are made of that kinda stuff…

So, unless we face-up to the reality that old ways of fighting new trends in crime will never work, we’ll continue to wallow in the cesspool of using statistical demagoguery as yardsticks to measure impacts of management of crime, annually treating people as mere numbers, hardly distinguishing between victims and perpetrators, all filing through ever-revolving doors with hinges greased by unchanged attitudes and approaches.

No one person or party has all the answers.

But none will ever be found unless people and governments across the region decide to change how and where to search — and start searching anew, with open minds and better tools, to build new societies with people more interested in knowing how many children are born every day, than wondering how many new names and faces will appear in the televised Death Announcements tomorrow.

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