Trinidad and Tobago


Zero defects

May 31, 2000
By Terry Joseph

AS attractive it may sound to a society bombarded with images of general lawlessness and outright barbarism, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's call for "zero tolerance" in the fight against crime is just not a viable solution.

It is a contentious concept, born during the Reagan era, to punish US school administrators who failed to comply with a federal order to expel—without any hope of appeal—students found with weapons or illicit drugs.

It is useful to remember here that the current US President, Bill Clinton, admitted to smoking marijuana while in college. Happily for Bill and (one presumes) his country, the authorities did not catch him in the act, nor was the zero tolerance concept in place.

So, while Mr Panday may be smarting over his Government's continuing inability to deliver on a 1995 campaign promise that a United National Congress (UNC) administration would reduce crime, he might wish to investigate further, the wider implications of this desperate option. Like the failed Operation LEAP, zero tolerance is just another apple-pie in the sky.

Actually, he could ask his American adviser, James Carville (who has worked closely with Mr Clinton), about the experiences in many of the US communities where zero tolerance techniques were applied to general policing.

In California, where zero tolerance was taken to the extreme, the Three Strikes law has resulted in outrageous court decisions. Several petty thieves, who have been convicted for the same crime on two previous occasions, are now being sentenced to ten to 25 years in jail, if found guilty a third time. One man, featured last week on the CBS TV programme Sixty Minutes, is currently doing 25 years for stealing a slice of pizza.

With all discretion suspended by decree, law enforcement officers and the judiciary are inadvertently fast-tracking petty offenders into the criminal major league. Jail then becomes the preferred learning institution for those who feel that their lives have been irretrievably altered by some trivial misdemeanor. Crime soars when such students are released.

In a country like ours, where every time police run out of ideas, someone is charged for "loitering" or "using obscene language and resisting arrest", the Prime Minister is now suggesting that any person who even swears be hauled before the courts. Mark you, these are the very courts that his Attorney General insists are already taking too long to conclude cases.

Add to that scenario our seriously overcrowded jails and soon we might find ourselves in the same scandalous situation as currently obtains in Argentina where, after going the zero tolerance route, so many people have been sentenced, that convicts are now being asked to come back when the jail has space.

But even at first base (to use another Americanism), given Mr Panday's often articulated commitment to national unity, he should also be careful that his call for zero tolerance does not elicit other undesirable spinoffs, one of which is the possible development of a tit-for-tat society.

Yesterday's gesture by the Sanataan Dharma Maha Sabha of inviting three non-Indian performers to participate at Arrival Day celebrations, is the preferred route and could only have come as a result of a new thinking on ethnic and cultural tolerance.

It was Mr Panday's government who introduced the community police, a clear demonstration of tolerance and counselling as crime prevention options. This turnabout in thinking therefore concedes a larger failure than the average politician can ever be expected to admit.

But Mr Panday has an even wider responsibility, in terms of the national psyche. After all, upon attaining political independence in 1962, then Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, gave us a national anthem, motto and watchwords, among which was the requirement for "Tolerance".

The motto: Together We Aspire, Together We Achieve, has taken a severe beating since Dr Williams, thought up that noble but nebulous slogan.

Discipline and production, the other two watchwords, have long been shot to hell. Tolerance was, in fact, our only remaining hope.

From nine words to live by, we are now down to zero. Worse, the lyrics of the anthem and the title of the nation's highest award, the Trinity Cross, have also come in for some measure of criticism and disrespect.

Mr Panday cannot therefore simply discard tolerance, without even attempting to substitute some new direction. In any event, the public is fast becoming intolerant with reported discoveries of rogue cops, reckless discharging of firearms and the frequency with which prisoners are escaping custody these days.

Perhaps the Prime Minister should first look at correcting the ills of the Police Service, before unleashing such a force on the people, the majority of whom are still decent, law-abiding citizens.

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