A leading Caribbean criminologist is arguing that while there are challenges linked to “groupings of young delinquents” anti-gang legislation ought to make a distinction between organised crime and youth gangs while recognising a variety of other social realities.
University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona expert, Professor Anthony Harriott, said in an interview with Trinidad Guardian “in many territories, anti-gang legislation is required and justified to deal, in particular, with a type of gang that we call organised crime … at the higher end of things involving drug trafficking (and) extortion rackets.”
However, he added, “if we are not careful in how we formulate anti-gang legislation then we can end up subjecting … groups of pickpocket (and) groupings of young delinquents.” “What anti-gang legislation does is provide for enhanced sentencing,” Harriot said. “If some of these delinquent young people are caught up in that, then we may just unnecessarily make criminals out of them … that are the major risk.”
His advice is for “separate pieces of legislation” for youth gangs and for those involved in “higher-end” organised crime. Harriott was chief author of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Caribbean Human Development Report (CHDR 2012) released earlier this year.
A 2010 survey informing the Report found that community cohesion was “generally lower” where street gangs existed. This led researchers, such as Harriott, to propose that “community cohesion and informal social control might be important factors in understanding the causes of street gang formation in the Caribbean.”
Yet, in some communities, gangs are credited by some as contributing to a reduction in crime by being local enforcers and even first responders to reports of crime. One community leader is quoted as responding that “gangs are the first ones to respond to crime; the police are incompetent, they take too long and never finish the work.”
Another respondent to the region-wide survey said “if you live in a community where there is gang cohesion you are more safe because they … provide safety, create jobs . . . give people food, give mother’s milk for their babies.”
Harriott has noted that, as a consequence, leaders of street gangs and organised crime groups have served as role models and mentors in some communities, which necessarily perpetuates a culture that places additional value on these criminal organisations and their positive role in communities.”
The CHDR 2012 suggests that street gangs emerge out of “high levels of youth employment, poor or inadequate educational opportunities, social exclusion, exposure to and experience of violence at home, in school, in communities and the wider society, and insufficient attention to youth development and empowerment.”
However, the report says organised crime “constitutes a different and serious problem.” It says this is so since it achieves its objectives “by exercising violence in connection with an enterprise activity, be it gun, or human trafficking, and extortion.”
Among the strategies identified for addressing the issue are the development of “exit opportunities” for gang members, establishment of street gang and organised crime surveillance systems and documenting of regional best practice models.
Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, UN Resident Co-ordinator for Barbados and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) told regional journalists during a recent media workshop the situation can be addressed if consideration is given to instilling higher levels of confidence in state institutions.
She said the CHDR 2012 showed that “citizens are optimistic about a future free from violence and insecurity” but require harder work “at ensuring that democratic institutions, from legislatures through to local authorities, are transparent and accountable.”
Gyles-McDonnough said such institutions also need to “demonstrate skills and capacities to deliver credible services to the public, building on public perception that the police force is still seen as trusted to protect and provide safe streets and communities, and that the judiciary, even though there are areas of concern, is capable to enforce the rule of law.”