Adjective on Crime

One week into its administration, the official opposition is accusing the new government of being “soft on crime” – whatever that means. Of course, the official opposition was the old government that was accused by the then official opposition of being soft on crime, too. In either case, the critics suggests that they would be tougher on crime. However, regardless of the adjective either side chooses, the problem is the noun, and the fact that both of them are using the wrong one. They are not being anything on crime. The most benevolent interpretation I can make of their mistake is that they mean “criminals” instead, whereby being “tough” means supporting harsher sentences, and “soft” meaning lighter sentences.

This then means, that we are talking about convicted criminals only, not about all criminals, for there can only be a sentence if there is a conviction. Hanna’s study, “Reducing Murders in The Bahamas: A Strategic Plan Based on Empirical Research,” which looks at homicides between 2005 and 2009, shows that there were 349 cases of homicide reported in The Bahamas during that period. Of these, the Royal Bahamas Police Force considers 73% solved. However, during that same period, only 63 cases were completed by the court system, only 18 of which ended with convictions, which brings the respectable rate of 73% down to only 5%.

A look at the Supreme Court statistics for 2000 to 2009 shows 34 completed cases for that time period, only 18 of which (53%) resulted in a conviction. This means that in 47%, or basically half the cases, prosecutors and investigators could not mount strong enough cases in court. However, the way that the RBPF statistics are calculated, even the cases that result in an acquittal are counted amongst those that are solved.

In the vast majority of cases, nobody was sentenced. The discussion whether sentences are tough or too soft thus becomes purely academic. Two adjectives that come to my mind when describing this situation may be “slack” or “slow,” and it is understandable that whatever government is in charge would be criticised. However, too much of the criticism seems to be driven more by an opportunity for political gain than by a genuine desire to bring down murder rates.

When sentences are discussed in terms of soft versus tough, most statements are little more than pandering to large part of the electorate that views the biblical an-eye-for-an-eye principle as the only suitable and ultimately tough punishment for murder, as well as the best deterrent for others to commit murder. There are several problems with this argument.

For one, no punishment of any kind can work as an effective deterrent if conviction rates remain as low as they are. It is doubtful that many murderers in The Bahamas look forward to life in Her Majesty’s Prison in Fox Hill. It is more likely that they commit murder, because they feel that they will not have to, and for people who believe that they will not be convicted, no sentence in the world can work as a deterrent.

Another problem with capital punishment is the possibility that the wrong suspect may be found guilty, and that an innocent person might be executed. The number of cases that are brought to the courts by our investigators and prosecutors but that do not result in a conviction should make us very aware of that possibility, because it either means that our authorities are accusing the wrong people, or that our juries are making bad decisions.

Finally, as I did not intend for this to be a thorough discussion of the death penalty, I would like to draw attention to the brutalisation theory, which suggests “that executions cause more homicides than they prevent and thus increase homicide rates.” Even if I think that much of the criticism is motivated by hopes for political gain, I would like to think that politicians are not that cynical that they would wish for murder rates to increase even further, because it would afford them additional opportunities for criticism and scoring political points.

Finally, and that is the biggest problem with this discussion, it all focusses on the criminal who has already committed a crime. I don’t care what they do with you after your kill me, I can’t; I’d rather, you didn’t kill me in the first place. Very little of our public discourse is dedicated to curbing crime. We love the victim, and we love to hate the perpetrator, and we can no longer imagine our world without these ritualised reactions.

One discussion that we do have, and that may have something to do with curbing crime, is the bail discussion. According to Hanna’s study, a considerable number of murder suspects are out on bail, having been charged with murder or other crimes, when they allegedly commit murder. The public’s reaction is understandable. We do not want criminals out on bail.

However, when these people are granted bail, they are suspects, not convicts. One of the most important, most fundamental principles of our legal system is that people are considered innocent until proven guilty. Another important principle is the right to a speedy trial. Unfortunately, and that much should be clear by now, we cannot guarantee the latter. If we cannot do that, then, like it or not, we must not hold suspects on remand indefinitely.

Accusing the political opponent of being soft on crime is not being tough on crime. Furthermore, the punitive character of our justice system has not only failed in curbing crime, but has potentially contributed to the violence that far too often characterises our society. By spending ever increasing amounts of money on aggressively fighting the symptoms of crime, we are headed down the path towards an Orwellian state, in which security becomes a privilege you have to be able to afford. On the other hand, rehabilitative efforts remain unpopular amongst a population that craves revenge, and restorative justice is one of the archipelago’s last unexplored islands.

The citizens of The Bahamas deserve to be safe in their homes and on the streets, and the government is tasked to protect said safety. However, regardless of whether murderers are executed or robbers behind bars, and regardless of whether or not suspects are out on bail, there will always be new people giving in to temptation if the opportunity arises. A government must therefore create a society in which not only the temptation is reduced, through educational and economic incentives, but in which also opportunities for wrongdoing are minimised.

The urban renewal programme of Christie’s first term in office between 2002 and 2007 has seen mixed reviews, and the outline for what the PLP’s charter has termed “Urban Renewal 2.0” is still a little vague, but as a society we need to understand that curbing crime has to start with reaching out to would be criminals before the “would-be” becomes a thing of their past. Urban renewal is only one ingredient, but there was a time during the first decade of the 21st century, when murder rates in The Bahamas decreased before increasing again, and this period coincided, to an extent, with Urban Renewal I.

At last year’s violence symposium at The College of The Bahamas, Michael Stevenson analysed the motives inmates of HMP Fox Hill gave for committing crimes. One main contributor was poverty, real as well as perceived. An improved educational system and ambitious economic programmes may help address the real problem of real poverty in The Bahamas. I see some of these issues were being talked about during the campaign, and it it now time that the PLP delivers what it believes in.

However, in order to address the also real problem of perhaps unreal, but nonetheless perceived poverty, we need to consider the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. In the 21st-century Bahamas, minimum wage cannot feed, house and clothe a mother and her children. In the 21st-century Bahamas, many who employ people at minimum wage can afford to live behind high walls, where they not only still feel reasonably safe from crime, but where they also do not have to see the poverty for which they are – at least in part – responsible.

In The Bahamas, we not only need to successfully treat the symptoms of crime, but we must also remove the motives and reduce the underlying causes. The government that realises this need and facilitates its solution will be the first government that can truly say that it has been tough on crime.

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