by Larry Smith
"(Former police prosecutor) Keith Bell said the only way to address the problem was for the political class as a priority to agree on a common agenda for crime reduction and comprehensive legal reform." -- Tough Call, 2008.
"People blame the PLP government and they blame the FNM government, but it is really the family and the way they bring these kids up." -- Livingstone Miller, taxi driver, 2007.
With all the shock-horror at our skyrocketing crime rate, you would never believe that the causes and consequences of the country's social slide have been copiously documented over the past 20-odd years by a slew of commissions and reports.
From the 1984 commission of inquiry into drug trafficking; to the 1994 task force on education and the committee on youth development; to the 1998 national crime commission; to the 2003 prison reform commission; to reports by the prison superintendent and chief justice; to the 2008 House select committee on crime headed by Dr Bernard Nottage - which never actually got to report because parliament was prorogued.
And that is by no means an exhaustive list.
The Gomez report cited high population densities in Nassau, too many bars and liquor stores, squalid neighbourhoods, limited recreational opportunities, education failures, and the fact that single girls were having too many babies, as among the chief factors shaping the behaviour of Bahamian youth.
According to the experts, these factors had contributed to a rise in domestic violence; a drop in social responsibility and work ethic; a lack of national pride; more lifestyle diseases like alcoholism, AIDS and obesity; and rising levels of criminality. In other words, a culture of raging self-indulgence.
"Failure to educate students about life issues including the natural environment, social responsibility, moral duty and cultural heritage was seen as contributing to the aimlessness of youth and their uncertainty about identity," the Gomez report said. "An entrenched class of underachievers existed...A government job was preferred."
The 1994 education task force, led by the late Dr Keva Bethel, called attention to a "deterioration of traditional values and accepted standards of behavior", which had produced "the scourge of teenage pregnancy and substance abuse."
In 1998 a national crime commission was appointed amid growing fears that New Providence was on the verge of "social collapse". Led by Chief Justice Sir Burton Hall, the commission found that the Bahamian family was disintegrating, and pointed to "a pervasive culture of dishonesty, greed and a casual disregard for social norms and regulation."
Sir Burton said the Bahamas was "reaping the rewards of our own inabilities, inattentiveness, incompetence and indiscipline; the seeds of which were sown many years ago...Commissioners are left with the impression that most crimes, of all types, are the product of greed, not need."
There were also the by now familiar calls to fix our judicial system - by adding new courts and improving their administration - and for more consistent law enforcement, with a stronger police presence in critical areas.
Bahamians tolerated a culture of lawlessness, the commission said, as demonstrated by the popular numbers racket and the wholesale flouting of traffic, environmental and street vending regulations.
The commissioners also identified a direct link between the physical squalour of our communities and other forms of anti-social behaviour. They called for an environmental court to deal with illegal dumping and littering, as well as the regulation of roadside garages and street vendors - considered destinations for stolen goods.
And politicians were urged to provide "visionary leadership" based on personal integrity and public accountability.
One key recommendation was the formation of a permanent non-political body to advise on critical social issues. This citizens' council was finally appointed in 2007. Led by Bishop Simeon Hall, members included clergymen, social workers, policemen, and businesspeople - but it is hard to say whether it still exists.
The advisory council was appointed following a public crime forum convened by former National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest in September 2007, a few months after the Free National Movement returned to office. Dr Bernard Nottage, the new Minister of National Security, has said he will hold a similar meeting within weeks to hear yet more public opinions about crime.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has warned Americans that the criminal threat level for New Providence is "critical", and for Grand Bahama it is "high". Nassau, the Americans reported, experienced a dramatic increase in crime in 2011, which appears to be continuing this year. The murder count for 2012 already stands at 66, compared to 127 for all of last year.
In a speech to the 2002 PLP convention, Prime Minister Perry Christie called the level of violence "unacceptable" and promised an "unrelenting war" on crime. Prison reform was perhaps the major crime-related accomplishment of Christie's first term. It was led by criminologist Dr Elliston Rahming, a one-time Tribune reporter who became prison chief in 2005.
When the FNM was re-elected in 2007, National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest said the new government would create a "paradigm shift" to reduce fear among law-abiding folk, and raise fear among criminals of the consequences of their actions.
Legal and judicial reform was the major crime-related achievement of the last Ingraham administration. Among other things, the FNM passed a plea bargaining act; strengthened laws on bail, firearms and dangerous drugs; added new gun and drug courts; completed a new Magistrate's Court complex on Nassau Street and expanded the Supreme Court complex downtown.
Yet violent crime continues unchecked, with some two dozen murders committed since the May 7 general election that returned Christie to office.
The key point to make here is that there is no need for further figuring. The contributing factors have all been identified. They can be divided into three broad categories - enforcement, justice and socialisation.
Enforcement is the way in which society's rules are applied or not applied. Justice refers to the way we process those who break the rules. And socialisation covers all the things that produce new entrants to our society - the family, home life, schooling, moral codes and work.
Let's look at each in turn.
Between 1973 and 2010, there were 1,817 homicides in The Bahamas. And from 2005 to 2009, 349 homicides were recorded, only 63 of which were prosecuted in the courts, resulting in 18 convictions. Only two of those convicted were sentenced to death. And there have been no executions since 2000.
These figures show that violent criminals are unlikely to fear the consequences of their actions. So it appears that the police response to crime needs a vast improvement. This requires money, strategies and expertise.
But improving enforcement is no fix by itself. It will only lead to gridlock unless the justice system is improved. Here, the solutions are clear and finite in scope - requiring only money to pay for more prosecutors, judges, courtrooms and administrative facilities.
Meanwhile, Fox Hill Prison can accommodate less than 1,400 inmates, but the average daily population is over 1500. The maximum security wing, designed to hold 450 inmates, actually held 869 in May. So if we want to deny bail, mandate long sentences, and deal with all the backlogged cases, we will obviously need a bigger prison and more prison officers.
And this is despite the fact that the Bahamas already has some 435 people behind bars per 100,000 population - ranking us ninth in the world and first in the Caribbean in terms of the number of citizens locked up. And close to half of those inmates are on remand, awaiting swift justice, while hundreds more accused of serious crimes are walking the streets on bail because they can't get a timely trial.
That brings us to the third category - socialization. This is much more difficult to address because it requires long-term investments in education, family counselling and social health programmes. But over the years experts have produced some agreed guidelines.
A 2005 report sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank took a close look at Bahamians who are between the ages of 15 and 24. That report collated information from a variety of studies and surveys undertaken by Bahamian government agencies over the previous decade, as well as international research.
Not surprisingly, education and employment were confirmed as the two most important factors in youth development. And the unfortunate fact is that 40 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls fail to achieve passing grades in Bahamian high schools, and more than a third of young people out of school are jobless.
Education, joblessness, anti-social behaviour and poverty are all closely linked, the report said, and international experience shows that at-risk youth benefit much more from improving basic literacy and numeracy than they do from vocational training. This is something the private sector has been seeking to convey to government officials for years.
One thing is clear about young people in the Bahamas today - they are growing up in a culture of violence that did not exist in our day. According to the 2005 IADB report, 35 per cent of boys and 13 per cent of girls said they carried a weapon, and most said they often felt like hurting or killing someone. Things are probably worse today.
Experts have long assumed that crime rates are directly related to demographics. But it is not just the number of young people that is relevant here. It is also the kind of families they come from. Social scientists say the rise in violent crime parallels the rise in families that have been abandoned by fathers.
In this view, the root cause of crime is not poverty, but moral failure. It is the refusal to exercise personal responsibility and the inability to enter into relationships based on a common code of conduct.
For example, one major US study of 11,000 individuals found that "the percentage of single-parent households with children between the ages of 12 and 20 is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and burglary."
The Christian Council and other community leaders would do well to focus constructively on these critical issues rather than constantly mouthing off about non-issues like gays and gambling.
So - to a large degree - we already know the answers to our problems. And we certainly know what the consequences are if we fail to address these issues. More meetings and more talk about the problems just won't cut it, Dr Nottage.
In fact, the Democratic National Alliance has already provided a whole set of concrete ideas to improve police work, prosecution services and the judicial process - courtesy of former candidate Wayne Munroe, a criminal lawyer (no pun intended) who clearly knows the system like the back of his hand.
Perhaps Nottage should heed the advice (noted above) of his junior minister for national security, Keith Bell, and agree on an emergency cross-party programme to combat crime and stem social breakdown. It would certainly make people sit up and take notice - especially the criminals.