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PEOPLE AND THINGS – Hang them high

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE AND THINGS – Hang them high

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Last week’s edition of People & Things led (unsurprisingly) to the accusation that I am not sufficiently concerned about the crime wave and offered no “alternative solutions”. 
This accusation is, of course, both unfair and untrue, since the essence of the article was rooted in an attempt to appreciate the “risk factors” associated with criminal behaviour and an attempt to permanently resolve these issues, leading to a reduction in crime. 
I have since noticed another online campaign of sorts which seeks to draw attention to the apparent incompetence of the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) and by extension the Government of Barbados in an effort to present a negative image abroad, which some believe will motivate Government to “do something”.
I would be the last to defend the RBPF against charges that it often has misplaced priorities. However, I consider it most unfortunate that people would argue that our police force is completely “incompetent” especially since it held suspects in both incidents within a relatively short time. Moreover, the belief that crime can be solved by the presence of more police boots on the ground reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of both crime and criminals.
The police, however well intentioned, can only do so much and it is left to the Government to develop and implement long-term solutions. In this regard, we could perhaps blame both the present and former Government for lacking the intestinal fortitude to frontally address the “criminal risk factors” that were identified in Yolande Forde’s seminal paper of 1997.
Since that paper was published, the Government of Barbados established the National Task Force on Crime Prevention which has already contributed to a greater understanding of the root cause of crime. Notwithstanding, we have had one crime wave after another largely because nothing fundamental is done to address these issues.
Regarding one major risk factor (education), our Government has been afraid to step on the toes of those within our population who are considerably “better off” and it is ironic that some such persons are now leading the call for “something to be done”.
Like them, I too, believe that something needs to be done, but felt this way when a working class woman was shot in a bank several years ago and more recently, when an elderly gentleman suffocated after being shoved under his bed by criminals. Certainly, something needs to be done now and something has for some time “needed to be done”.
The ‘what’ is a matter we might disagree on fundamentally since a frontal assault on criminal risk factors would force Government to shift resources and policy towards a social sector that would make our “better off” uncomfortable. 
If our middle classes are not happy about sacrificing a $500 allowance for the greater public good, I would be surprised if these same people would be comfortable having their children educated next to poor people in schools that are close to the places we live.
In the meantime, I appreciate that we can either address deviance when it begins to manifest itself early in life or brace for enhanced criminal activity when these deviants leave school and hit the streets.
Subject of discussion
One “solution” that has been the subject of discussion more recently is the death penalty. Readers are presumably aware of my position on this matter which runs counter to public opinion in Barbados as reflected in opinion polls published in 1999 and 2011.
It is always difficult to counter the “pro-hanging” arguments because of the fury with which those who want to hang them high argue, but I would cautiously draw reference to the two most recent executions in the Caribbean. 
The most recent took place in St Kitts in 2009, and if this punishment were really the ultimate solution to crime, one would have assumed that St Kitts would have had no murders since.
Ironically, the murder rate in St Kitts climbed exponentially to a high of 12 in 2010, not as a result of the hanging, but in spite of it. I raised this logic with one female taxi driver there who passionately supports the death penalty and she said the problem was that they only hanged one and not the “dozen that they have in the prison”.
Her reference to the “dozen” was both unfortunate and ironic since, to my mind, it demeans the termination of life that is at the root of a hanging which is made to sound like a package of rolls in a bakery. The irony relates to the fact that Trinidad and Tobago did just that in 1999 when it executed ten murderers over two days in June and followed quickly thereafter with the execution of two in July. This makes a total of 12 hangings which should have magically ended all crime, if not murder, in Trinidad and Tobago. 
As fate would have it, there was a murder in Trinidad and Tobago at the end of the week that Dole Chadee and others were executed and by the end of 1999, Trinidad recorded 93 murders, which was admittedly fewer than the 98 they had in 1998. However, the impact of the “dozen hangings” was clearly not profound since the murder rate climbed to 118 in 2000 and has risen exponentially since then to 485 in 2010. 
The argument that if the gallows begins to swing regularly violent crime will immediately fall is therefore simplistic and easily refutable.
We are, therefore, left to conclude that vengeance is really the only plausible reason for pursuing hanging and while vengeance is also a legitimate basis on which to punish, it does little to help curb the current wave of crime.
Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).