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Are common theories of crime applicable here?

By Theodore Lewis

 Part I


The crime problem in the country may be aided if we can find good theory to guide the practice of those involved at the front lines. That will include police of course but also policy makers, social workers, NGOs and schools. We should evaluate whether existing theories of crime could apply here, and whether there are aspects of our local situation that suggest place-bound theory.  There are questions that need to be asked as we try to understand our local troubles.  For example, what explains the very low crime rates we see in countries such as Switzerland, Singapore and Hong Kong? These countries, along with Japan, have very low murder rates. They are in the Far East and Scandinavia.

When we look at countries with the highest murder rates in the world they appear in our neighbourhood: Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, St Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, Guatemala and Belize. 

Mexico and Colombia may be included in the regional mix, though it is interesting that Colombia has been witnessing a steady decline in murders over the past decade. 

This geographic dimension of the problem of crime complicates what traditionally could be thought of as the terrain of the sociologist.  Asian countries tend to be collectivist. This characteristic eschews violence. However, the Central American and Caribbean grouping is based not on any deep national characteristic but on narco-trafficking, which legitimately brings into play the local theory of the mythical Mr Big.  

Why does the attack on crime focus mainly on the foot-soldiers—on the brothers on the block who deal with small money—while Mr Big gets so much out of it that he has to imagine ways to launder it? Recently attorney David West former director designate of the Financial Intelligence Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (FIUTT) said that the Government was refusing to deal with the growing money laundering in the country.

A prevalent theory about crime in the country is that its basis is poverty. This theory is incomplete because it cannot explain why we are more crime-ridden now than 50 years ago when we had no running water and electricity, and pit latrines were commonplace. Perhaps the way to see this is that we were all poor then.  So the issue is not absolute poverty but relative poverty.  Maybe what causes crime here are differentials between the poor and the affluent.  Some people can afford a house, others must squat.  Some have good jobs others none at all. There is inequality.

In his lament “Poverty is hell” Shadow deals with this question.  He contends that: “Poverty is hell and the angels are in Paradise; Driving in their limousine where everything is nice and clean” meanwhile “ A poor man living in a teeny-weeny hut, The children hungry, nothing in the pot.”  This difference between rich and poor causes tension. The Archbishop has now joined in this saying at Corpus Christi that inequality is the culprit here, in education, and in access to affordable legal assistance. I think we have to look seriously at this as guiding theory. We may begin with inequality in education. We should not be satisfied that there are good schools and bad schools in this country.

What compounds the problem of inequality in society is that the establishment is seen to be more on the side of the haves than the have-nots.  Thus street crimes are dramatised, while white collar crime is treated merely as skullduggery. The ordinary criminal is a pariah, but we saw members of cabinet attending a wedding in Tobago as the guest of a man who is fighting extradition to the US where money laundering proceedings await.  This is conflict theory at work. 

We saw conflict theory  in full bloom during the Commissions of Inquiry on the Hindu Credit Union and CLICO, where the populace were numbed into hearing about scandalous thievery and misappropriation of people’s money by executives, all this as the alleged perpetrators sat there, in their suits, protected by statutes of limitation, sipping bottled water and taking notes. Like MC Hammer, you can’t touch them. The State does not look credible when the smart men run rings around us. Appearing, disappearing, lookee dey! Lookee dey! Calder Hart, then Lawrence Duprey. 

But it is not the case that the elite are all law abiding while the poor commit crime. It is that the elite commit crime in plain sight. Locally we are hearing around every corner that highly placed people in the Government are on the take. State contracts and kickbacks go together like doubles and channa. People become super rich and you can see no practical correlate of their entrepreneurial genius. What is the secret sauce they created that led to their riches?

 
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