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The trouble with ‘zero tolerance’

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Zero tolerance? Forget it. As a slogan, it has a retro feel. And it won’t work with T&T’s statute books.

There’s a maximum sentence of five years in jail for a ganja spliff. Even with the wriggle-room currently applied, the ganja laws throw a huge chunk of our population into conflict with the law. 

If drug laws are to be enforced with zero tolerance in Westmoorings and in Laventille, we’ll need some serious jail building. 

OK, so just fines, then? There’s a $25,000 maximum. That might solve the fiscal problems stemming from last week’s US$42 oil price.

Even thousand-dollar fines and overnight jail stays for those without bail breed conflict and resentment.

Then there’s the buggery law. That one carries a 25-year jail sentence. 

There’s 30 days in jail or a $200 fine for “insulting, annoying or violent language.” I love that “annoying” bit…five minutes on Facebook in election season and we can all find a good few candidates for a month in the lock-up.

There’s a $400 fine for “lewd or suggestive dancing.”

In March, Maurice Tomlinson’s challenge to the antiquated Immigration Act reached the Caribbean Court of Justice. Quick reminder: homosexuals are banned from these shores, along with “idiots,” people with dementia and the dumb, blind and physically handicapped. 

Acting Chief Immigration Officer Terry Downes told the court that the law is not enforced: “We do not enquire about the sexual orientation of a person,” he said.

So does that solemn undertaking get thrown into reverse if we suddenly go for zero tolerance?

With a bunch of crazy, outdated laws still on the statute books, the only way is tolerance and non-enforcement. Or else we can do some reform, and stop letting Pastor Cuffie dictate social policy to the Cabinet.

That’s probably not what Eric Williams had in mind when he said: “I have given to the nation as its watch words Discipline, Production, Tolerance.” But it makes sense.

Anyone know a business operating in a residential area without planning permission? Any squatters? Or wads of cash passed round the Hyatt in brown envelopes?

Zero tolerance imposes an automatic punishment for those who break the rules, without regard to discretion or circumstances.

This concept dates back to the early 1970s. It ties in to the “broken windows” crime theory: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows.”

That is not complete nonsense. But it’s not a one-dish menu.

Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner Bernard Kerik are sometimes credited with using zero tolerance to bring down the New York crime rate from the 1990s. 

Oddly, the crime rate was coming down before Giuliani took office, and declined at pretty much the same rate in a lot of other American cities where Rudy Giuliani wasn’t mayor and Bernard Kerik wasn’t top cop. They did some good stuff, and some less good. So did their colleagues, successors and predecessors. 

But as a sales pitch, “zero tolerance” was magic. In 2004, George Bush appointed Kerik interim interior minister of Iraq in 2003, and nominated him next year to head the Department of Homeland Security. 

Guyana’s former president Bharrat Jagdeo and our own Jack Warner (then in opposition) flew in Mr Kerik in 2007 to tell everyone how to solve the crime problem. 

In 2009, Kerik took a four-year prison sentence for criminal conspiracy, tax fraud, and lying under oath; a nice bit of zero tolerance.

Across the Caribbean, murder rates are among the highest in the world. 

Bringing violent crime under control requires carefully-managed reforms for the police, judiciary, prisons and social services, with administrative follow-through. And that’s just for starters.

Bahamas, Belize or Barbados—the problems are similar.

This current government came to office in 2010 on a wave of optimism. Over the past five years, the average monthly murder rate has been slightly higher than under Patrick Manning—although, to be fair, it has been below that of Patrick’s worst years, 2008 and 2009.

There’s no easy answer, on any side.


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