The recent spate in gun violence in Saint Lucia and the attendant amendments of the Firearms Act to facilitate the stiffening of the fines, sentences for illegal firearm possession, and the establishment of a Firearm License Board, have created a schizophrenic frenzy in our court of public opinion. Not only has it caused us to continue lamenting about the seeming politicizing of crime, but it has also given good reason for wide concern about the desperate measures aimed at solving the problem.
Among the one most troubling is the alarming assertion that the removal of bail and the resumption of capital will somehow curtail criminal behaviour. The escalating number of unsolved homicides has further strengthened the popular view that we lack the capacity to apprehend criminals, let alone scare the worst among them with new threats related to the death penalty. Our energies would be better devoted to improving our crime-fighting efforts through technology and community engagement, buttressed with proper witness protection.
It’s high time we moved away from the view that harsher penalties will significantly reduce crime in our society. This Victorian approach to crime, which places great importance on incarceration, has obviously not been effective.
Such attempted solutions—including taking away the discretion of the courts in determining fines and sentences—are intellectually bankrupt, a fact widely recognized in other parts of the world. Yes, the time must fit the crime. But such time should be decided by the judiciary, not by politicians acting under duress by a victimized electorate prone to taking the law in their own hands. The proposition of bail denial to individuals charged with gun-related offences is not in harmony with the notion that persons are to be treated as innocent until proven guilty.
While all right-thinking citizens consider crime repugnant, there is always the matter of justice being seen to be done. The punishment must suit the crime. And such punishment cannot be left in the hands of politicians with reelection in mind.
When politicians seek to strip away the court’s discretionary power, they essentially are saying that whether someone kills, whether or not in self-defence, he or she must be treated similarly by a court acting per the dictates of politicians with crime being the farthest thing from their minds. Do we, as a society, trust our elected officials when it comes to dispensing justice? What reasons do we have for such trust? Have we become so cynical that we are unable to trust our judicial officers to be fair in their dispensation of justice? Have we allowed ourselves to believe that such shortcomings as may be associated with our justice system must be blamed on our magistrates and judges only?
Consider the case of Jones v Attorney General of Barbados. The court held that the Act which sought to make it more difficult for persons charged with murder and serious firearm offences to obtain bail until 24 months had expired after the person was charged was unconstitutional—because it sought to repudiate a pre-eminent judicial power and discretion. It sought to remove the judge’s power to analyse whether the individual deserves bail based on character, antecedents, associations, community ties, nature and seriousness of the offence, familial obligations and strength of evidence against the individual.
We must be vigilant when it comes to the self-serving rhetoric of our political leaders. Nothing they might say can change the fact that the automatic denial of bail is contrary to our Constitution. When our leaders tell us that left to them “all criminals would be locked up or dead” and the death penalty reinstituted, remind them of these court decisions.
When so many of our politicians seem to be acting out of a need to settle personal scores, when so many have personal matters pending, or when they are clearly seeking to appease crime victims at the wits’ end, we should remind ourselves of Operation Restore Confidence and the recurring nightmare it. created. Feel-good solutions can be costly.
When people say the justice system is in crisis, what they fail to recognize is that it is the country that’s in crisis, evinced by the poor condition of its court houses, shortage of judges and magistrates, archaic crime-fighting methods, and so on. Hopefully our independent judiciary, backed by our Constitution, will have the courage to tell the legislature where its authority begins and ends!
Remedial measures must be premised upon the view that to a large extent crime emerges from the economic marginalisation and polarisation in our society. Any attempt to solve it must aggressively tackle the chasm between the haves and the have nots, and ensure the active engagement of people to reduce their likelihood of committing crime through mentorship and education, among other areas. TC Brown summed it up fittingly in his prelude to his song “Helen and Lucia,” when he questioned whether our responses to crime are knee-jerk, and suggested the true solution lies in our addressing seriously the dichotomy and polarisation in our society.