Causes of crime as the starting point for solutions
AS a society that is under siege on account of criminal behaviour, it could be helpful in forming policy on crime if we can arrive at better understandings of its causes. It would help in doing so if we delimit our focus to causes that seem to be plausible here at home. For example in some societies, crime has a sectarian dimension. People do violence onto each other on account of cultural factors that divide them, such as race, tribe, or religion but we rule out sectarianism as a theory of local crime.
One approach to understanding the causes of crime is to take a discipline-based perspective. Thus, we may say that there is a sociological dimension of crime and in so doing one could point to the connection between social class, income, and crime in the country. Or we may say that there is a psychological dimension of crime, and point to the fact that many perpetrators and victims of crime in the country seem to be either adolescents, or young adults who are making the transition from adolescence. For these latter there seems to be a developmental factor at work--an age group that is disposed to going the wrong way.
It is plausible that there is an economic basis of crime. Criminal behaviour, such as involvement in the illegal drug trade, may hold out to many the promise of a good life--a life they believe justifies taking the risk of being caught.
A solution here could be tougher penalties that make potential criminals think harder about the risks. This is the Singapore approach. If you come near to illegal drugs or guns in Singapore the consequences are quite bad if you are caught. Policing is tight there and efficient. Drug dealing and accidental firing of a gun are among crimes subject to capital punishment. Thus in Singapore with a population of over five million, the number of murders in 2011 was 16, and in 2012 it was 11.
Crime may be explained in terms of cultural deviance. This theory calls attention to sub-cultures in which the inhabitants celebrate criminal behaviour. One night last year I went into Cocorite where I have relatives. It seemed that all of the youth had come out onto the street. There were about three or four different deejays blasting music. I asked what the cause of celebration was and was told by a youth that they had just come back from a funeral.
The life of a brother on the block had been taken away by a bullet. The music was not necessarily indicative of a celebration. It was ritualised music. Still it was worrisome in the circumstances. Men were brooding. There are indeed sub-cultures in this country and in Jamaica, where criminal life is ritualised. Everyone in Cocorite knew the dead youth.
All (except perhaps the police) knew the killer. This would be consistent with American ghetto culture, where criminality is glorified in rap music and movies, and comes with its own standard of undress, underwear being a fashion statement. Trelawney and Laventille in this scenario can be compared with Chicago.
At the end of the day, criminal behaviour can be explained along two main dimensions, the environment where people live, and whether or not they act as individuals or in groups. It cannot be disputed that there is a relationship between crime and geography. In Laventille and Cocorite, crime has ebbed and flowed over decades. Periods of calm and periods of tension. I have experienced both there. But why no such thing in Mafeking Village, Toco, Moruga, Chaguanas, Preysal, or Tobago? It is not just that some areas are poor or rich. It is that there is an inter-generational factor at work that causes youth especially in urban squatting communities to take up arms periodically. Perhaps male youth in these communities cannot see further than today.
Fathers are not around, and there is no bank account with money for further education. Girls are pregnant by fourth form, and by 18 boys have one or more children. It is about survival and manhood of a kind. Searching for respect. They want cars but the price is unreachable.
What has made geography potent is male youth in survival mode, with nothing to lose, organising themselves into criminal groupings. Groupings like this are vulnerable, and could be exploited by unscrupulous monied elements in the society who have the wherewithal to import weapons or drugs.
Mr Big has become a folk norm here, akin to lagahoo or douen. He exists but cannot be seen. There is none so blind as those who would not see. When these groupings organise in geographic enclaves such as Cocorite and Laventille, with one main road, and a thousand tracks and alleys, and where an outsider is easily spotted, they see that they are the dominant force in the community. Everyone becomes hostage to them. Housing schemes or “Plannings” have the same geographic features, which is that they are cloistered and easy for gangs to monitor the movement of people, and to exercise control over these people.
We just cannot keep throwing money and expending ministers on the crime problem. I think we have to try to reason out the problem first. The key sources of information about crime are the young perpetrators who are arrested for criminal behaviour.
The police should try to learn more about causes, by allowing social workers to interview young inmates. This was a wasted opportunity during the State of Emergency. There is need in ghetto areas for measures aimed at engaging youth productively. Measures such as expanded vocational service programmes in agriculture, forestry, preservation of swamp land, river courses, and coastal areas. There are roads to be built, and senior citizens who need regular groceries and medicines.
Further, there is need to aid youth in these communities to hone entrepreneurial skills. Beetham youth could be aided in converting their well-honed skill in rummaging the La Basse into recycling businesses. I see much evidence, especially among young black urban women, of entrepreneurial acumen, in the roadside clothing stores they run. All is not lost. We need to bring some more thought and creativity to the crime problem.
• Theodore Lewis is Emeritus Professor, University of Minnesota