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Who exactly are ‘gangsters’?


Who exactly are ‘gangsters’?

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WHAT IS A GANG? Amidst all the recent private and public discussion surrounding this issue, that is my fundamental question.

This question has become more relevant in light of comments attributed to Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, which appeared on the front page of last Thursday’s DAILY NATION.

According to that article, the Attorney General is quoted as having declared at the National Consultation On Violence last week that a prison sentence of at least 20 years should be meted out to all those found to be “members of gangs”. The leaders of gangs, he was reported to have said, should receive “a maximum of 25 years in prison”.

Nowhere in the comments attributed to the Attorney General did I see the qualifying adjective “criminal” or some similar word or phrase that would differentiate between an association of law-abiding individuals on the one hand, and a similar association of individuals who engage in unlawful activity on the other. Where constitutionally protected freedoms may be at stake, in this case the right of freedom of assembly and association, we as citizens must all be vigilant.  

What is missing from the present worthwhile national discourse on this subject, is a discussion surrounding the definition of “gang” or “gang-related activity” that is intended to be employed in any proposed legislation. For how can we have any meaningful discussion on how to control a thing, without first defining the thing itself?

While there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a “gang”, salient features of this creature across jurisdictions, including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada include: an association of three or more individuals, who adopt a group identity, who have identifiable leadership and whose members engage in criminal activity. I assume the pending legislation will borrow from these common elements.

What is unclear, however, in the absence of sight of a working definition, is exactly how the legislation, police and ultimately the courts will distinguish between circumstances where individuals commit crime while in the company of others, and those circumstances where crime is committed by persons who are members of an organised criminal enterprise with a common criminal design. Given the hefty mandatory prison sentences proposed, this question is more than academic.

Examine the following scenario.

A group of 25 hikers assemble as usual and set out on an eight-mile hike through the country. While on their trek, the group passes a mango tree and two people in that group stop, and without the permission of the owner or knowledge of the others, take mangoes from the tree.

It would appear to me that unless a very clear definition is employed of what constitutes a “gang” or “gang-related activity”, using only the universal elements identified above, the two hikers who took the mangoes, as well as all other members of that group, notwithstanding that they were not personally involved in the mango-taking, could all find themselves designated as members of a “gang” and be potentially liable to receive an all-expenses-paid, 20-year vacation to Her Majesty’s Prisons Dodds. 

I am certain that it is not the intention of the Attorney General to criminalise the members of the group of individuals above described. However, as ridiculous as it may sound, that can potentially be the result if extreme care is not taken to get the definition of “gang” exactly right to precisely target the malady that ails us as a nation. 

Perhaps a more suitable approach might be to speak in terms of “organised crime” – just a suggestion.