CHAIR of the Violence Prevention Alliance (VPA), Dr Elizabeth Ward, has told the committee contemplating the new anti-gang law to leave place for a well-funded second chance programme instead of custodial sentences for young first offenders who might be caught in police dragnets with the passage of the legislation.
"We are suggesting that non-custodial sentencing and a second chance programme be instituted and allow for the police, as well as other agencies, to be able to play an active role in that, prior to the criminalisation of our youth for a first offence," Dr Ward told a meeting of the joint select committee of Parliament considering the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) Act 2013, otherwise called 'Anti-Gang legislation', yesterday.
"What we know locally and what we are saying to the committee is that what we really need is a well-funded second chance programme to divert these individuals who are first offenders. What we know is that we have effective programmes such as Children's First, which are able to divert these offenders and rehabilitate them and at a much lower cost," she said.
Dr Ward said that while the VPA hails the Government's action to reduce the impact of organised gangs, it was urging that the "committee considers a clear definition of gangs that does not criminalise our male youth who are often only the pawns in organised crimes".
Yesterday, Ward said it would cost far less to rehabilitate than to maintain a prisoner.
"The cost of a year in prison is over $1 million, the cost to rehabilitate at a place like Children's First is about $120,000 per annum. What we also have to realise is that adolescence... is a period of brain development and our frontal lobes are only developing slowly.
"Until you are about 25 your brain is really not developed, and what we know is that during this period of adolescence punishment is really nothing, the more you punish them, the more punishment they take, but what means a lot is reward," she argued.
She added that over 80 per cent of gang members are school dropouts and 50 per cent do not know their fathers.
"There is a cost to incarceration and there is a cost to keeping people within the child care and protection system... these costs are very high, and from where I sit we have been looking at the cost of gunshot wounds to the hospital service. We have done studies that show that annually we in the health services in 2006 were spending over $2.2 billion on direct medical costs for violence-related injuries. In today's world it's $3.1 billion, and one gunshot wound is costing us between $250,000 and $ 1.5 million," she noted.
Ward said rehabilitative programmes with a track record at turning around these individuals cost between $35,000 and about $200,000 or $250,000 per annum.
In the meantime, she said the VPA was worried about the diffused nature of the Bill.
"We would like to make sure it is focused on a fewer number of offences," she said, adding that the group was not convinced that the formation of the Bill will reduce the homicide rate.
Committee chair, National Security Minister Peter Bunting was quick to point out that the "legislation gives no additional powers to the police".
"It gives nothing beyond what they have now, it is nothing comparable to a state of emergency, all it does is create new offences that persons who are active gangsters can be charged in addition to murders, shootings and the other offences they are conducting, and it is particularly useful in (nabbing) leadership who would be insulated from the actual murders, shooting, drug-running because they would be buffered from the actual situation on the ground," he noted.
"If you read the Bill carefully, it is not going to be easy to get convictions, especially for membership. My estimate is that I don't think it would add more than, at most, a hundred persons to the system. If we got a hundred convictions under this Act in a year it would be very effective," Bunting said, noting that the focus would be on taking down the gang leaders.
"We in no way contemplate that the passage of this Bill will result in a sweep similar to what happened in the 2010 West Kingston incursion. You are preaching to the choir when you speak about social intervention programmes," Bunting said.
The long-awaited, "anti-gang legislation" was tabled in the House of Representatives in June this year by Bunting.
The Bill embeds a special signal for the dancehall community as it seeks to, among other things, outlaw the use of signs, symbols, graffiti or songs to promote or facilitate the "criminal activities of a criminal organisation". It also provides that the cases, except in "a few instances", will be tried in a Circuit Court by a judge sitting alone and the proceedings will be conducted in camera, meaning the media will be excluded.