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Debate on anti-gang Bill begins in the House today

BY BALFORD HENRY Sednior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, February 11, 2014    

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THE House of Representatives will today start debate on the report from a joint select committee on the provisions of the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) bill, popularly referred to the as "anti-gang" Bill.

Minister of National Security Peter Bunting, who chaired the committee, is scheduled to open the debate and is likely to be followed by leader of Opposition business and spokesman on national security, Derrick Smith.

However, the controversy surrounding the provisions has already been reduced as a majority of members, who had shown support for the contentious clause 15 (1) which provides for the use of signs, symbols, songs, etcetera "to promote criminal activity" to be treated as a criminal act by the police, relented allowing for the withdrawal of the clause from the Bill.

"Given that the proposed modification of the provision is such that it no longer has any direct connection with criminal organisation, those of us who were in favour of keeping clause 15 (1) relented, and agreed that the clause should be deleted from the Bill," the report stated.

"Your committee recommends that the provision (modified as proposed) be removed as a substantive provision in the body of the bill, and be inserted via the third schedule of the Bill, as a new provision in the Offences Against the Person Act," it stated.

"With respect to the penalty for the offence, we believe that a lesser penalty than what was set out in the bill should be considered, because that provision was not really focusing on criminal organisation but was relevant to the bill due to the fact that that type of music supported the activities of criminal organisations," the relenting members explained.

They recommended that the penalty be reduced from the proposed maximum fine of $5 million, and up to five years in prison, or both, and on conviction in a circuit court to a term not exceeding 20 year, to a fine not exceeding $1 million or imprisonment for up to six months in the Resident Magistrate's Court under the proposed new arrangement.

The original clause had proposed the penalties for individuals who use a criminal name or indentifying symbol, tattoo, or any other physical markings, or produce records or perform songs to promote or facilitate the criminal activity of a criminal organisation.

However, these proposals were opposed by the Opposition members, led by its spokeswoman on youth and culture Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, as well as a number of civil society organisations, including Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition, the Violence Prevention Alliance and human rights activist Yvonne McCalla Sobers; all of whom expressed strong opposition to the clause.

The Opposition presented a paper on its "alternative" view, also included in the report, which expressed the view that the danger was that the section limits its focus to the activities of gangs only, and not persons generally, and targets songs rather than all forms of activities by which incitement takes place.

"The proper course would be to codify the common law in legislation, setting out the penalties for breaches of the law and carefully provide for all forms of incitement, whether in music or otherwise," the Opposition paper said.

They also suggested that the proposed section could easily be interpreted as censorship of the art form, as judges would be determining how a song "promotes or facilitates a gang's criminal activity". They proposed that other organisations, such as the Broadcasting Commission, could deal with the issue in as far as it affects the music industry, but that legislating it in a Bill, such as this Act, would make it difficult for it to be policed.

Prior to relenting, the members supporting the clause felt that there were reasons for it, and that there was scientific evidence to support the notion that "cultural expressions reinforce behaviour". They also noted that it was evident in the results of the studies, as well, that in the case of "persons who consume a steady diet of messaging about killing informants and killing the police, etcetera", it could impact their behaviour and consciousness.

They also felt that the provisions should be wide enough to cover "key groupings which have been the targets of hate music in Jamaica", such as the security forces, police informants and other whistleblowers and homosexual persons.

The Bill was tabled in July by Bunting, and is aimed at suppressing and disrupting organised criminal enterprises. It includes provisions for the treatment of persons dealing with members of these organisations as well as artistes who promote their lifestyle.

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