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Crime And Punishment

February 17, 2002
By Raffique Shah

FOR the umpteenth time in as many years, the seemingly intractable problem of runaway crime has bludgeoned its way to the top of the national agenda. A spate of murders-almost one a day-as well as increasing incidents of serious crimes and a virtual orgy of violence over the Carnival, have once more led to cries of outrage by citizens, and pressure on the government to do something about it. Prime Minister Patrick Manning announced last week that his wife, Education Minister Hazel Manning, and National Security Minister Howard Chin Lee, were working on strategies to combat violence in schools and crime at the national level.

The initiatives of these two ministers will no doubt result in the latest plans for dealing with a crime spiral that began many years ago. People with short memories will forget that Basdeo Panday and the UNC came to power in 1995 on an anti-crime platform. Touting Ramesh Maharaj as potentially the best crime-buster in modern times, Panday vowed to bring crime under control in short time. Six years later, besides hanging members of the Dole Chadee gang (who had been arrested and charged during Manning's stewardship), Panday and Maharaj had achieved little else.

Of course, as murders increased to obviously unacceptable levels, Panday's detractors blamed the continuing crime spiral on the then PM "sleeping with the Devil" in order to win power. If Panday was seen to be ungodly, then what could account for the "murder spree" we are witnessing under the Manning government? After all, Manning is as religious as politicians come. Indeed, one might be tempted to ask him to bring in evangelist Benny Hinn to "cast out" the Devils in the country, who, surely, must be behind the heinous acts that haunt us.

Clearly, the politicians are not to blame for the crime situation, not directly anyway. Nor, for that matter, do they have solutions to the problem. Panday thought that by giving the Police Service 100 Cherokee Jeeps to replace the "donkey carts" they had used before he came to power (his words, not mine), would cause crime to dissipate. Also, he failed to understand that rogue cops were part of the problem, hence they could not be part of the solution. By the time he lost power last year, he had thrown his hands up, all but surrendering to the reign of the criminals.

We don't know what Manning's plans are since he said they were in the formative stages, and he asked that we wait until ministers Manning (H) and Chin Lee come up their proposals. What we do know is that every time the murder rate increases, people clamour for blood, for the arrests and instant execution of anyone who "is guilty" of murder-and that without any investigations or trials. And since such human reaction to dastardly criminal acts is normal, it often finds favour with politicians who go for the kill, quite literally.

Panday did, with the Chadee gang. He satiated the population's cry for revenge, for blood-only to discover that if there was any respite from murders, it was fleeting. Manning may well adopt a similar approach: bring out the army, put more armed policemen on the streets, lock up anyone who so much as sneezes hard-and presto, the problem is licked. While I believe we need to use all our resources to fight crime, unless we look carefully at the root causes, unless we take the "community approach" to dealing with it, we are only spinning top in mud.

Let me cite a few examples to illustrate what I mean. An American engineer was stabbed to death on Carnival Monday night when he attempted to pursue a gang of "pickpockets" who had robbed him. These gangs come from mainly depressed districts where a few "experts" train them in the art of picking pockets. People in the communities from whence they come, they know the leaders and members of the gangs. They could tell you where to find piles of discarded wallets. And they could more than likely finger the gang that killed the engineer.

But because such people are ostracised by society, because they feel the criminals are only part of the dispossessed who are looking to make an easy dollar, they look in the other direction, refusing to cooperate with the police. Which brings me to the second point. Rogue elements in the police cut both ways, so people are reluctant to give information-lest the criminal is made aware of who the informant is. It's a genuine fear, especially where drug dealers are concerned, since many of them exist only through their "contacts" in the Service.

The other reality, which I have repeatedly stressed on, is that every criminal comes come from a home. He or she does not drop from the sky. So parents or other members of the family are often aware of the activities of the deviants. To get elders to help save them from the web of crime in which they are caught, or to bring them to justice where it is necessary, demands a kind of community spirit that is absent from most such districts. If government allocates more resources to rekindle that spirit, that sense of responsibility to protect the society from deviants, it would find the returns are much better than expanding the security forces. Every law-abiding citizen should see himself as a policeman or a soldier.

There is another training ground for criminals that often goes unnoticed-the jail. Right now there must be more than 25 per cent of inmates in that overcrowded institution who would be better off outside. Many are in for petty offences that don't even warrant jail terms, but because the law is an ass and sanctimonious members of the Bench believe they are doing society a service, near-innocent citizens end up in cells with hardened criminals. As one who saw such unfortunate souls suffer for some minor misdemeanours, I wouldn't wish it on my enemy. But I do wish magistrates and judges would visit our prisons to see what they are subjecting minor offenders to.

Based on my experiences on both sides of the prison walls, I believe we can curb crime. But we need to approach it in a holistic manner, from homes and communities to rehabilitation centres. Root out the devils in society, that we must do. But let's not condemn the innocent and the harmless to purgatory, thereby cultivating more criminals. It's but a thin red line that separates the lawful from the lawless. Let it not remain invisible to us as we move to eradicate crime.

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