Ineffective Responses to Crime in Jamaica

• Crime in Jamaica has reached Brobdingnagian proportions; 845 people have been gunned down since the start of the year.

• The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) is challenging the government’s commitment to fighting crime.

• The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report accuses Jamaica of taking insufficient action to combat human trafficking.

• Prime Minister P.J. Patterson’s attempts to stem the crescendo of violence on the island are ineffectual.

• The 2000 Bail Act must be revised so that those who are soberly accused of shootings and murder, only to be capriciously released on bail are stayed from becoming free to kill again.

The island of Jamaica has been plagued by an unprecedented wave of violent crimes in the past few years. In 2004, 1,417 Jamaicans were murdered and since January of this year more than 845 people, 115 in the month of June alone, already have fallen victim to violence. Frustrated by the government’s apparent lack of concern for this disturbing trend and its failure to emphasize the importance of curbing crime on the island, the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) called for a nationwide protest against the Patterson administration. The three-day initiative began on May 25, with major businesses closing at 1:00 p.m. and prayer vigils held in many areas of the country. In Kingston, PSOJ President Beverly Lopez, made public the 2005 Declaration of Emancipation Park, in which she pleaded for Jamaican parliamentarians to break all ties with criminals. The document contains 13 ultimatums, nine of which were directed at the government and four that involved the initiatives of private Jamaican citizens.

History of Crime
Throughout its short history, Jamaican society has been marred by an unrelenting violence at the hands of political factions associated with the country’s major political parties. However, the origin of the crime surge in recent years goes beyond the nation’s traditional political strife. In 2001, under increasing public pressure to seriously address the crime problem, the government set up the National Committee on Crime and Violence. The committee was established to formulate strategies to lower Jamaica’s high crime rate in a manner “that would foster wide public confidence and support” among Jamaicans and to counteract frightening off visitors to the island attracted by Jamaica’s all-important tourist industry.

Apart from offering 15 recommendations for dealing with crime, the committee also identified 16 factors believed to be the source of the burgeoning violence in the country. Among the root causes that the committee identified were economic instability, the high availability of firearms and other weapons, the criminals deported by the U.S. to Jamaica, the drug culture and political tribalism. The report also outlined the 12 deleterious effects that crime and violence have had on the island, including the polarization of communities into warring factions, the loss of investment opportunities, economic instability, loss of personal and business income, the political and social disengagement of Jamaica’s citizenry and the harm done to the tourist industry’s income.

In its list of recommendations, the committee failed to offer any profound solutions to the nation’s problems and today crime remains a grave and persistent issue. However, all of the committee’s suggestions emphasized that reducing the level of crime necessitates a cooperative effort among the government, the private sector and the public, though the government bears the primary responsibility. Dissatisfied with inaction on the part of Jamaican authorities, the PSOJ has focused on drawing attention to the negative social and political effects that crime has on the island’s cohesion and its economic viability. The last straw for the PSOJ came on May 16, when businessman and Clarendon Justice of the Peace Maurice Azan, along with his stepson, Lloyd Phang, were murdered by gunmen at Azan’s workplace. In response to the murder of one of their fellow business owners, the PSOJ has in recent weeks stepped up the intensity of its call for the government to stem the tide of violence that threatens to envelop the country.

PSOJ Challenges Government
The PSOJ declaration stated that the Jamaican government was not doing enough to protect its citizens or to punish the perpetrators of crime in accordance with the Constitution. Richard Azan, Member of Parliament (MP) for Northwest Clarendon and cousin of murdered businessman Maurice Azan, has been the most vocal opponent of signing any agreement with the PSOJ. In a 2005-2006 sectoral debate on May 31, Azan accused the May 25 protest of being an insincere display of public solidarity as most businesses in the corporate area normally close at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesdays. He also requested that members of the PSOJ publish the names of the people to whom they pay extortion, as he believed that these payments for vigilante protection add to the climate of lawlessness that has the island in its grip.

Despite protests from a few MPs, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson encouraged parliamentarians to sign the PSOJ’s document and break all criminal ties. Patterson also sought to establish another committee in order to examine the effects of crime. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the prime minister has no viable solution to Jamaica’s crime problem, since his only strategy has been to create committees and then make a half-hearted attempt to follow the least offensive of their recommendations.

Scope of Crime
In November 2002, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report on “Crime Trends in the Caribbean and Responses” noting that the Jamaican drug culture has been a contributed factor to the increasing crime rate. Cocaine originating from Latin American cultivation centers is transported to North America by various routes, many of which pass through the Caribbean islands, including Jamaica. The boom in transnational narcotics networks resulted in an explosive expansion of drug-related crime in Jamaica and the evolution of more sophisticated “white collar” crimes such as money laundering and computer-assisted fraud. The report also concludes that a strong correlation exists between narcotrafficking and the spike in the homicide rate.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Jamaica’s crime problems go beyond drug smuggling, money laundering and even homicide; the country was accused of violating international laws on human trafficking. The report placed Jamaica in Tier 3—the report’s worst ranking—alongside countries with “governments [that] do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making a significant effort to do so.” Even though the TIP report was not able to accurately account for the number of minors that are involved in Jamaica’s sex trade, it is evident that the problem is larger than the Patterson administration is willing to acknowledge. Although the prime minister’s cabinet pushed passage of the Child Care and Protection Act, the State Department report concluded that implementation of the Act has been less than satisfactory as “government commitment is hampered by resource constraints and a lack of political will.”

Patterson: The Right Man for the Job?
However, even if the report does not accomplish its high-minded goal of assisting in the elimination of human trafficking in the countries of the developing world, it will hopefully urge Patterson to realize that the endemic crime in his country is now attracting widespread attention. Human trafficking is a grave offense under international law and could result in a ban on non-humanitarian and non-trade related financial assistance from Washington.

Most Jamaicans agree that corruption has visibly increased during Patterson’s 13-year stint as prime minister. Countless attempts to curb criminal activity, even within the public sector, have arrantly failed. Police Commissioner Lucius Thomas, confirmed suspicions that members of his force have helped to transport, load and conceal drug shipments destined for North America. Drug smugglers, according to the Commissioner, have been apprehended carrying police-issued ammunition.

The Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, charged with investigating allegations of corruption in the civil service, has had virtually no impact on the prevalent dishonesty that plagues the public sector. Many argue that Patterson needs to completely overhaul the outdated criminal justice system in order to guarantee that those accused of corruption are vigorously prosecuted. Of foremost importance to any transformation of the judicial branch is revision of the Bail Act of 2000, which Scotland Yard Police Deputy Commissioner Mark Shields insists is a major contributing factor to Jamaica’s crime problem. Under the current bail system, many accused of serious offenses such as murder and armed assault are released on bail, only to be arrested later for committing a repeat offense.

The Crime Trends report claimed that while few countries have not experienced long periods of steady increases in their homicide rates, it is possible to effectively control this problem through sound policy measures. Despite all the scandals that have rocked the island, Patterson has remained disturbingly complacent, hoping that creating commissions and signing agreements will miraculously end the waves of crime that have swept the country. At this point, many argue that Jamaica needs a comprehensive renovation of the criminal justice system in order to hold police, parliamentarians, and other members of the public sector responsible for their actions.

Poverty, Joblessness and Crime
The PSOJ hopes that its brief show of solidarity with the Jamaican public as well as its draft resolution calling for government accountability will attract attention to the government’s shortcomings and possibly distract from its own contribution to the problem. In truth, MP Azan does have a valid point in claiming that members of the business community exacerbate what already is a bad problem by making extortion payments to criminal factions in exchange for protection.

Nevertheless, the roots of crime in Jamaica spread beyond the corrupt public sector. The Crime Trends report identified poverty as a primary cause of gang violence, since low family income may lead to the separation of children from their loved ones. Poverty also lures children to work as sex slaves in the island’s tourism centers, where they can earn comparatively large sums of money. It also may be responsible for juveniles transporting drugs on behalf of South American cartels. Overall, poverty increases the vulnerability of both children and adults to criminal activity.

Even though the report lists economic disparities as another root cause of crime and violence in Jamaica, the Gini coefficient, a measure used to calculate income inequality, tells a different story. On the Gini scale, zero represents perfect income distribution and 100 represents completely unequal distribution where one person controls all of the country’s income. Jamaica has a coefficient of approximately 38 compared to the U.S.’s figure of 40. Hence the island enjoys an income distribution that is even more equitable than its self-proclaimed middle-class neighbor.

On the other hand, joblessness is a major contributing factor to the crisis, as Jamaica has an unemployment rate of approximately 15 percent – one of the highest in the Caribbean. Unemployment coupled with poverty results in large numbers of students dropping out of high school making them prone to joining criminal gangs, which are often associated with South American narcotics traffickers.

Can the Crisis be Resolved?
The fact that the island is a major trans-shipment zone for cocaine and a significant exporter of marijuana in its own right, has not aided it in reversing Jamaica’s spiral into lawlessness. A worst-case scenario for Jamaica would be if its inability to maintain its borders against the movement of drug smugglers causes a descent into anarchy, which could eventually result in a failed state.

The prime minister would be wise to push for a legislative revision of the Bail Act of 2000 so that persons accused of violent crimes are not released on bail. Corruption in the police force must also be rooted out to ensure that police officers actively engage in the eradication of the drug trade. Patterson should take steps to drastically reform the police force, including increasing their wages after the bad apples are removed from the crop, making the benefits of participation in the drug trade less attractive, while also more vigorously punishing those found guilty of this offense. Although the administration’s attempt to modernize the police force by infusing the top ranks with foreign senior officers is laudable, it is unclear whether such efforts will prove successful. More effective measures would be to increase police officers’ wages and more vigorously prosecute those found guilty of corruption.

In addition the heavy workload shouldered by the Jamaican Constabulary Force hinders its ability to effectively address the crime problem. The Jamaica Gleaner reported that in a recent study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, as many as 99.2 percent of the Jamaican Constabulary Force worked more than forty hours per week, irrespective of rank, service or type of duty performed. Thus methods of officer recruitment must be revised so that more members of the public are encouraged to join the force, alleviating the problem of overworked officers.

Finding a solution to the crime problem is one of the most troubling unanswered questions for any Jamaican. It is difficult to identify exactly when the crime plague began, but it is obvious that crime is a serious problem threatening to destroy the country’s vulnerable tourism industry, which is dependent on the perhaps erroneous idyllic perception of the island held by many Americans and Europeans. As the PSOJ’s short-lived uproar has indicated, solutions must be found quickly as more and more Jamaicans as well as outsiders have become increasingly frustrated with the government and its inability to respond effectively to the serious threats crime poses to the general public.

For More Information:

“Ads placed abroad for senior cops.” Jamaica Observer. 29 June 2005.

Buckley, Byron. “PM targets corrupt officials.” Jamaica Gleaner. 13 June 2005.

“Courts too easy with bail, says Shields.” Jamaica Observer. 20 June 2005.

“2005 Declaration at Emanicpation Park.” Jamaica Gleaner. 26 May 2005.

Harriott, Anthony. “Crime Trends in the Caribbean and Responses.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 12 November 2002.

Hart, Robert. “ ‘Plain hypocrisy’ – MPs slam PSOJ-led crime-fighting initiative.”
Jamaica Gleaner. 1 June 2005.

“Hours too long, but cops trying to cope.” Jamaica Gleaner. 26 June 2005.

“Islandwide lockdown.” Jamaica Gleaner. 26 May 2005.

“Report of the National Committee on Crime and Violence.” 11 June 2002.

Thomas, Norman. “Scotland Yard to work in Jamiaca from March 1.” Caribbean Net News. 10 February 2005.

“Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. State Department. 3 June 2005.