Harsh punishment by itself won't solve crime

Back in 1974, heightened concerns about gun crimes — not least murder — influenced the Michael Manley-led People's National Party (PNP) Government to enact draconian measures, including the Gun Court Act, provisions of which would later be deemed unconstitutional.

Many older Jamaicans readily recall Mr Manley telling Parliament in typically dramatic and colourful fashion that the new court facility on South Camp Road — which was built in record time — would be painted "red" and would be "very dread".

The idea then was that extreme punitive measures to counter gun crimes would be a powerful deterrent.

It's probably hard for many to fathom, but in 1974 there were only 195 murders here. As we all know, in today's Jamaica there are multiples of that 1974 figure in any given year.

The point is that harsh, long-term prison sentences and tough anti-crime measures, including the Gun Court law, the Suppression of Crime Act, and states of emergency have not deterred criminals in any sustained way.

Criminals must be punished. And, in our view, murderers must go to prison for a long time — a very long time in the case of those heinous, wilful, deliberate acts categorised as capital murder.

Our difficulty is the seeming belief among many opinion leaders that prison sentences of however long — 30, 40, 50 years — are of any great concern to those who have chosen a life of crime, to the extent of even routinely killing people.

Justice Minister Mr Delroy Chuck, in making a case for harsher minimum sentences for capital murderers, is reported as saying the society needed to "send the right signals".

That's fine, as long as it's not held that such measures by themselves will reduce crime.

Mr Chuck marvels about those who "…deliberately take it on themselves to go and shoot up [people]".

Heartless is how such people are often described.

The question Jamaicans must ask themselves is, how it came about that so many among us have become heartless.

In this newspaper's view, much of that has to do with how we treat our children. It seems to us that far too many of our children are growing up in conditions that are totally inimical to anything that's positive.

We don't have to look far to find them.

A walk through our most deprived, informal communities on the gully banks, down the zinc fence lanes of our towns and cities will unveil the young ones — often born to people, little more than children themselves — growing up brutalised by adults, without love, care, hope, or anything resembling proper parental guidance. Many do not go to school, or do so only infrequently.

They are the ones most easily recruited, socialised, trained, and armed by hardened criminals many of whom grew up in similar circumstances.

There is no quick fix. The society, as a whole, must find a way to save the children and young people from the clutches of crime.

We reiterate, the basic tool must be community organisation to uplift those at the bottom. It has to be driven by an alliance of government, all political sides, public sector agencies, including the Social Development Commission, schools, civil society, church, business leaders, et al. It will take time.

But there really is no other way.

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