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A panel of Christian leaders and a military chief have identified temporary unemployment relief, such as the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) and Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (Cepep), as a major factor affecting crime.
Speaking at a media briefing at the conclusion of the Prayers Plus—Finding Solutions for Crime Symposium at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre on Thursday evening, the five-member panel, which included Vice Chief of Defence Staff Brig Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer, said there were serious deficiencies and corrupt activity in the programmes and these needed to be urgently addressed by the Government.
“We think that there is clearly a correlation between the current approach in these programmes and what we are witnessing in terms of the prevalence in gang culture,” Phillips-Spencer said. His comments come days after National Security Minister Gary Griffith announced that the controversial Life Sport programme, which aims to teach life skills to unemployed youths in high crime areas, would be placed under the control of the Defence Force.
Last Saturday, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced the transfer of the programme from the Ministry of Sport to Griffith’s ministry amid allegations of corruption. Phillips-Spencer said the issue with the restructuring of such programmes arose during a presentation of business leaders during the three-day symposium of Christian leaders, which also featured media executives, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Chief Justice Ivor Archie.
He said that two important comments made included the need to revisit the relationship between reward and effort and an observation that attempts were being made by the Government to “buy peace” from criminals. “The continued effort to ‘buy peace’ highlights further the reality that gangs and gang culture is now replacing what would otherwise be strong community life,” Phillips-Spencer said.
He said a major issue with the programmes was that they were being used by some deportees attempting to reintegrate into society.
“We don’t think that is productive or contributes to the kind of environment we want,” Phillips-Spencer said. His views were strongly endorsed by director of Prayers Plus Cleveland Thomas, who led the panel and first highlighted the issue.
“With all the reports of what is happening with these programmes I believe that you don’t have to be Christian to recognise there is a need for a revisiting and a rethinking of it,” Thomas said. He said such programmes should only target able-bodied unemployed citizens seeking temporary relief and training to return to the workforce. “There are those people in society that need financial help. I think the issue that comes up over and over is that it needs to be targeted, specific and managed and managed well,” Thomas said.
President of the Council of Evangelical Churches of T&T Desmond Austin added his voice to the call for reform of the programmes, while saying there was a need to move away from “handouts” to ones that encouraged innovation and creativity. “We recognise that in our country, where we have a concept of handouts and that we have a situation where many of our citizens have become mendicants (beggars). We have people that have become consumers rather than producers,” Austin said.
While they all agreed that the Government needed to rethink some of its anti-crime measures, they acknowledged that the Christian community also needed to increase its efforts in addressing the issue.
Austin said, “For a very long time the church has been accused of not doing anything with regard to crime. The problem is over the many years we have been working in various spheres in society but on this occasion we have brought together the church and civil society and have hammered out various ways that we can work together to make a dent in this sort of activity.”
Another crime-fighting solution, highlighted by the panellists, was a call by some Christian leaders for Government to introduce legislation controlling violent toys and video games as well as to possibly censor the broadcast of violent content by the media.
The call for censorship was strongly supported by panellist Dr Margaret Elcock, founder of Family Focus Broadcasting Service that operates radio station Isaac 98.9 FM. She called on publishers of daily newspapers to try to refrain from publishing gruesome crimes on the front pages. She said, “It would be so nice if everybody would decide for a week let us not print the horrible news that is happening in our nation and maybe the perpetrators might realise that they are not the centre of attention.”
The panellists also expressed their support for the reintroduction of faith-based learning programmes in schools coupled with initiatives geared towards anger management and conflict resolution. “Get it back inside of the schools. It is the absence of that which contributes to some of the problems that we have,” Thomas, the organiser of the symposium, said. He said the symposium sought to bring Christian leaders together to discuss the issue of crime and to find solutions to address it.
“We accepted that there is the need for a united voice to speak out against the acts of corruption, unfairness, dishonesty and everything else that is plaguing our nation,” Thomas said, announcing that the leaders had agreed to establish and fund a centre which would specifically co-ordinate the Christian community’s efforts in the fight against crime."
Saying the participants in the conference understood that the plans would not be an overnight success, Thomas added, “We cannot overemphasise that the problem is so deep rooted in every sector that it would be an error to think that with a three-day symposium we will have all the solutions and crime would disappear as of tomorrow.”
He said another meeting would be held within the next nine months to a year to assess the progress on the 14 recommendations and possible solutions agreed to during this week’s symposium. “It is time we speak up. We cannot simply afford to hear what is going on, recognise that it is wrong, continue to complain and do nothing about it,” Thomas said.