Anti-crime bills get attention
PARLIAMENT yesterday resumed debate on two of the six anti-crime bills which had been the root cause of the stalemate in talks which began in 2008 when those measures were thought to be inappropriate and oppressive.
The bills, an act to amend the Bail Act; and an act to make interim provision extending the powers of arrest and detention under Sections 50B and 50F of the Constabulary Force Act, along with an act to further amend the Firearms Act; an act to amend the Offences Against the Person Act; an act to amend the Parole Act and an act to make interim provision in relation to the grant of bail in specified circumstances; were introduced in 2008 but were not passed because of a lack of consensus.
Crime fighters have said that the measures giving them increased powers are necessary to enable them to deal effectively with urban gang warfare.
But the Parliamentary Opposition and several interest groups had raised alarm regarding provisions in the two measures. It was argued at the time that the specific and extreme features in the bills, such as an absolute prohibition on bail for 60 days for a wide variety of offences and long mandatory minimum sentences, with no provision whatsoever for the court to have any discretion on those matters, was manifestly inappropriate and oppressive.
The Opposition said that the provisions would deny citizens of even minimal judicial protection from abuses of power by state agents. They also raised concern over the fact that the two bills could be passed by a procedure which would prevent the court from considering whether those bills were compatible with the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.
The Bills were withdrawn, redrafted and retabled in deference to those concerns.
In addressing the concerns over the 60-day period in the Bail Act, Prime Minister Bruce Golding said that what was now being proposed was that persons could be held without charge for up to 60 days but should be taken before a judge not later than seven days after being held.
“Thereafter if he is not released he must be taken back before the Court at intervals of 14 days. If at the end of the 60 days the court has not ordered his release and if he is not charged he has to be released,” the Prime Minister said.
Meanwhile the amendments to the Constabulary Force Act provides for the imposition of curfew and cordons by the commissioner of police on a defined area. Within that defined area, power is given to arrest and detain persons. It extends from 24 to 72 hours the period for which a person can be detained before being released or taken to court.
“It’s a situation where we are providing an extraordinary response to an extraordinary situation. It is not going to be permanent,” Golding said.
The Opposition’s Dr Peter Phillips in responding to the proposed changes, reiterated the call for the government to remain open to suggestions.
According to Phillips, the measures were by no means the “silver bullet or a panacea” to Jamaica’s crime problems. He however noted that there was a need for measures that were “demonstrably effective in dealing with the problems”.
The two bills will be in effect for a year after they are passed into law, unless otherwise decided by the legislature. Further debate on the provisions were suspended until next week when the House resumes sitting. Debate on the other four bills which are less contentious, is also expected to take place.
Golding said last week that the hope was to have the provisions passed into law before Parliament’s summer break in July.