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Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)
Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)
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By *Jomo Sanga Thomas

(“Plain Talk” Dec. 15, 2023)

Our country is increasingly becoming unhinged. The social glue that held it together is slowly dissolving. Stabilising institutions such as schools, churches, villages and families are rapidly losing sway. As a result, a significant section of our youth become alienated from society. In their search for meaning to life and its mushrooming problems, many of them turn to anti- social behaviour, particularly drugs and crime.

Last April, CARICOM leaders met in Trinidad for a historic symposium: “Violence as a Public Health Issue”. The conference emphasised the public health risk from growing violence. In his welcoming address PM Rowley said violence in the Caribbean is a public health emergency that threatens our lives, our economies, our national security, and by extension every aspect of our wellbeing. 

All of the regional leaders from Bahamas and Jamaica in the north to Guyana and Suriname in the south sounded similar alarms. We could not agree more. We clearly have an emergency on our hands. While many leaders were good at diagnosing the problem and laying blame, the symposium was woefully short of answers. The leaders blamed everyone but themselves for the burgeoning crime problem.

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Gonsalves said then, “too many of our judges and magistrates are too soft”. Judges and magistrates were accused of favouring certain lawyers when sentencing convicted criminals. Following these statements, lawyers organisations were justifiably incensed. The OECS Bar Association in a statement said, “Instead of focusing on the real issues impacting crime such as lack of investment in youth, the family, education, the judicial system, the police, and the crown prosecution service, some leaders preferred playing the blame game, blaming everyone but themselves.”

Last week, Gonsalves in a get tough, law-and-order press briefing was long on ways of dealing with crime and short on answers to the increasing incidents of crime especially homicides and other violent crime.

He suggested changing the law to increase the time that police can hold criminal suspects. That time is currently 48 hours. There is no evidence that longer detention would assist with the detection and or solution to crime. Currently, persons are detained and locked away for 48 hours. Many are released without ever being questioned by their jailers. Others are not even told the reason for detention. There is abuse now. A longer detention period will make for even more abuse with no meaningful dent in the crime.

Gonsalves proposes to abolish preliminary inquiry (PI) and to allow for a sufficient hearing where the magistrate decides who goes to trial, a procedure known as paper committal. Truth be told, this will not solve the problem. Most PIs are concluded within the first year of detention. However, accused persons spend on average three or four years on remand before being brought to trial. However, families may save money if preliminary inquiries are eliminated.  As it stands now, many families find money for the PI and then are unable to support their loved ones at the trial. Because there is no legal aid in SVG except for murder trials, if the PI is abolished, many more persons may go to trial with legal counsel.

The suggestions to increase sentences for sex and gun offences are political responses to crime rather than an attempt to solve crime or to get to the root causes of crime. The authorities hope that those who are increasingly alarmed may see “the get-tough policies” as progress. It is sadly mistaken.

Young men convicted of murder are sentenced to an average of 35 years. This increased penalty has not resulted in a decrease in homicides or gun violence. The opposite is true. We have had a steady increase in gun violence that leads to death in the last decade. SVG has smashed its homicide record over the last three years with 40, 42 and 51 deaths to mostly gun violence.       

Gonsalves also floats the idea of judges-only trials for murder. Frankly, this may not be a bad idea. While our jury system is well entrenched, the time may have come to either do away or seriously revamp it. The jury pool is too small. Some jurors may sit on as many as four matters in a single year. Many are now “professionals” with more than 10-trial experiences. Jurors should also be educated on the critically important concept of reasonable doubt. Judges, by virtue of their training and experience may have a better grasp of the concept. The operative word here is “may” because some judges are notoriously pro-prosecution.

Crime is a scourge on society. Crime against women and children is even worse. But how do we address this problem? Are our societal norms to be blamed? We demand that our women and children be submissive? The fact that women are more educated and employed and in a position to assert their independence means that men cannot impose their domination when they had the power of the purse. How about us educating men about the dangers of ideas regarding male domination, misogyny and hypersexuality?

Longer sentences for sexual offences are by themselves are no solution to the high incidence of assault and violation of our women and children. When a teenaged boy admits to kissing and sodomising a 4-year-old child with a nebulizer, the instinctive reaction may be disgust and horror. However, is a stiffer penalty the answer or should we be investing in health care to deal with the serious mental health problems that eat away at our society. Currently, there are dozens of young men warehoused at the prisons unable to go to trial because there is no psychiatrist to test for their fitness to plead.   

Do we stop to analyse how many of our crimes are based on the deep and dark pale of hopelessness and helplessness that choke off the wellsprings of our youth and nation?  What percentage of the deviant behaviour exhibited by our youth is driven by frustration? What role does unemployment and lack of opportunities for advancement play in youth descending into crime and violence? On these crucial issues, Gonsalves is silent.

Gonsalves cited his “get-tough policies” on guns and sexual offences as proof that he has a clear strategy for fighting crime. These utterances would evoke laughter if our crime situation were not serious. Just like his “tough on crime and the causes of crime” pronouncement before, his statement last week will be long remembered as the empty rhetoric of a veteran politician with no answers to the pressing problems confronting our country. 

Stiffer penalties ain’t going to change ah thing but fill up the jails.

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The opinions presented in this content belong to the author and may not necessarily reflect the perspectives or editorial stance of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

One reply on “The stiffer penalty temptation”

  1. Is stiffer penalties a deterrent to crimes? That’s debatable. However, a similar study done in Trinidad after the execution of Dole Chadee and his henchmen found a drastic reduction in the crime rate after capital punishment was administered. In other words there is a positive correlation between capital punishment and crime.

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