OPINION: Need for a national conference on crime and the penal system

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By Dr Tara Singh

Reflecting the major concerns of Guyanese both at home and abroad, I make an urgent call on the Government to convene a ‘National Conference on Crime and the Penal System.’ This forum would allow stakeholders: law enforcement officials, Government officials, social workers, and scholars/researchers, to pool their resources, analyze the crime problem, and integrate their findings into a coherent policy framework.
Guyanese harbour in common an objective fear for their personal security (crime), even though each one tends to express it in different ways. They are very worried about the spate of physical violence (crime) that has been unleashed upon victims, sometimes with naked brutality. The murders of the Henry boys, Haresh Singh, and more recently the 86-year-old pensioner of La Grange, West Bank Demerara, among other predatory crimes, have evoked not only anger, but exasperation at the crime problem in Guyana.
The gravity of the crime problem can be simply stated as follows: “We can get all the best jobs, accumulate all the wealth, enjoy all the social welfare benefits, live in the best homes, have up-to-date models of vehicles; but, as soon as we go onto the street, we are cut down by a hail of bullets. Or even in our homes, we can become victimised (robbed and/or killed).” So, what is the point of having all these material comforts when we are deprived of adequate public security?
The continual uncovering of many corrupt activities (white collar crime) adds to the predatory list of crimes (murder, rape, wounding, domestic violence, armed robbery, drug trafficking, etc.) and presents a picture of a breakdown of law and order. When Guyanese are afraid to leave their homes or walk on the streets, how else could anyone describe this situation, other than as a living nightmare?
We know of the devastating impact of crime on families (the trauma, the pain, and the financial and human losses), on businesses (physical damage and economic loss), and on public entities (in the form of graft and corruption that saps the life blood of development). Apart from crime driving fear into citizens, it also clogs up social intercourse; it scares away investment; and it hurts tourism.
Here is how a sample of Guyanese view the crime (personal security) problem. “Without proper security, the people perish, and people in the diaspora will refuse to visit.” (PJ). “Guyana need to pay their Police more and have a strict code of conduct.” (HJ). “Balance the racial make-up of the security forces, higher level of education to enter…higher salaries and rewards/ promotions for performance…and harsh penalties for criminals.” (RC). “The security problem is restraining potential investors (from coming) to invest in Guyana, especially the Guyanese Diaspora, many of whom left Guyana in the first place because of the feelings of insecurity.” (PK).
“Why it is always the Government’s fault? People should take some responsibility, too. Why don’t you propose private security?” (IRS). “The concerns of crime and other social ills (are) paramount for a country on the brink of a huge windfall from oil. With oil, other worrying social evils can increase. (AJR). “This Government believes that the niceties they are offering will cause us to forget our fears and overlook their limp attitude towards attacking this cancer in our society…Why is the PPPC afraid to attack crime?” (BR).
What is interesting is that whenever there is a discussion on crime, Guyanese often refer to predatory and not necessarily to white collar crime! White collar crime is committed by people in powerful positions of trust and high status in the course of their occupation, and who develop an elaborate technique of neutralisation to minimise their guilt.
I have not been able to gather crime statistics from official records, and have depended heavily on anecdotal evidence from newspaper articles and from victims and their families. Statistical data would have allowed for the depiction of trends and the identification of groups that are at risk.
Nevertheless, the available evidence is enough to highlight the need for swift action on the matter of “public security.” I am now reaching out to the current Government, and hope they would respond positively to this request for a national conference on crime and the penal system.
Everyone knows that crime is not only the Government’s responsibility, but it is also everybody’s business. It is for this reason that I urge the Government (Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Human Services and Social Security, and the Attorney General) to get all the stakeholders involved in a national conference on crime and the penal system. Of course, this conference would be just the beginning of a continual dialogue on crime and its control. Other measures, like setting up a permanent task force on crime and drug trafficking, as well as law reform, could be integral to this process.