Less law, not more.
That is what one trained attorney says Barbados needs in order to effectively fight crime and violence.
Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus Dr Janeille Matthews, insisted that officials should pay more attention to tackling the root causes of crime and violence instead of implementing “heavy-handed approaches”.
In fact, Matthews questioned the recently amended controversial Bail Act, saying too often Barbados seems to “go to feel good measures” instead of addressing main issues such as inequality, poverty, unemployment and underemployment and other social and economic issues facing several communities across the island.
“What the research tells us is that inequality contributes to social exclusion and marginalization. So while I hear a lot … about the idea of the fatherless child and the breakdown of the family in the single-parent household, the societies in the Caribbean many of those features are not new. So that is not what is happening . . . when you embrace false narratives your policies are misguided,” she said.
“I don’t want to dismiss it completely, but what I will say is that we need to think about it or re-frame it in a more nuanced way. I think what people are feeling perhaps is a social cohesion that seems to be deteriorating. And social cohesion is very different from fatherless children,” explained Matthews.
She was addressing a crime and violence symposium at the Hilton Resort on Friday evening, put on by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES).
She said risk factors such as people feeling “disconnected”, marginalized and that they don’t belong, should be areas to address instead of focusing on refashioning families “in ways that we think are acceptable”.
“I think the focus really ought to be on some of the government responses to inequality. So, I think that when we tend not to look in that direction what we do is to sort of address the specific people who we are demonizing and stigmatizing and as a result we are missing real opportunities to kind of do something else. When we target particular people and particular communities what ends up happening is overcriminalization,” she said.
“I think that is something we don’t talk about. So ironically, I think one of the solutions for addressing the crime situation here is actually less law and not more,” said Matthews, while pointing out that “the system to a certain point, works”.
Using minor offense such as wandering and vagrancy as examples, Matthews said laws governing such behaviours should be modernized, adding that people who fall within those categories were vulnerable and there were underlying valid reasons that should be addressed.
“Our sort of gut reaction or intuitive reaction is that we have to get tough on crime and we have to get tougher. So there is draconian legislation. As a Caribbean citizen, these measures trouble me greatly. When we look at the Bail Act, for example, which is likely unconstitutional, what it means is that we go to a sort of feel good measure to allow us to say ‘we are really doing something’,” she said.
The Bail Act, which was amended last month and immediately came under heavy criticism from various interest groups and attorneys, now has a provision for any person charged with murder, treason and high treason or an offence under the Firearms Act, which is punishable with imprisonment of ten years or more, to not get bail unless 24 months have passed.
Matthews said, such measures were really “undermining the very thing that sets Barbados apart” from other territories.
“When you pass legislation like the Bail Act, it then sorts of erodes public trust and you are then undermining what it is that you are hoping to achieve. So that kind of knee-jerk response is something that is part of a longer Caribbean story,” she said.
However, the lecturer said while public confidence in the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) remains low when it comes to the issue of domestic violence, there is still a general sense of confidence in the ability of the police force to control other violent crimes.
Matthews told the engaged audience that Barbados is in a position to learn from “every place else” instead of continuing to use “40 or 50 years of get-tough measures”.
“Two things that will work perhaps – tackling the inequality that exists structurally and I think also less law, not more,” Matthews insisted, adding that judicial officers should also do better in getting cases through the system instead of keeping people on remand for lengthy periods. (MM)