Monday, February 19, 2018

Crime causes


Mark Fraser

 According to Maha Sabha leader Sat Maharaj, illegal Jamaican immigrants were responsible for the murder of schoolteacher Dian Paladee. Which means that the media, which reported that Ms Paladee was shot by her ex-husband, got it wrong and that the police, as usual, failed to arrest the real culprits.

In blaming illegal immigrants for crime, Maharaj was repeating the Ramcharitar thesis, named after poet and short story writer Raymond Ramcharitar, who has argued that the influx of small-islanders after 1956 is responsible for nearly all violent crime in Trinidad today. Ramcharitar doesn’t have any research showing that most criminals are small-islanders or their descendants, but who needs data when you read Foucault?

Now, in respect to Ms Paladee’s murder, you could just as well argue that Hindus, rather than Jamaicans, were responsible. After all, cultural norms which say women should be subservient to men obviously justify violence against women. You might assert that this is why India, which is 80 per cent Hindu, has the highest rate of female infanticide in the world, widespread rapes, and frequent wife-killings. 

You could even argue that, if anger is the cause of crime as Sat Maharaj says, then Sat himself is responsible for Trinidad’s high homicide rate, since he always sounds angry when talking about Christians, Muslims, and people who oppose the marriage of 14-year-old girls.

Admittedly, this would be a quite superficial argument, but superficiality is exactly what the majority of people in this place prefer in when discussing serious matters. Hence the reason media houses regularly ask religious leaders for their opinions on crime and how to fix it.

The premise here is that crime is a moral problem, and religious leaders can offer moral solutions. This assumption is false on two grounds: first, religious leaders are typically less capable of moral reasoning than non-religious persons, since most religious morals are based on authority rather than ethical logic; and, secondly, research shows that criminality is spurred by material factors, such as economics, politics, and public policy.

At Ms Paladee’s funeral service, Government Minister Devant Maharaj, echoing politicians and police officials, insisted that the Government was not to blame for murders, since they couldn’t “put a police in every home”.

This argument is disingenuous, of course, since most murders are not domestic ones. But it is noteworthy that people who blame “the breakdown in the family” for crime also decry lack of “family values” in modern nations, even though these societies have far less killing and corruption than ours.

 In other words, if a stable family is the key factor in preventing crime, then all the white countries raise their children far better than we do.

So when commentators condemn criminals as inhuman beasts, this is both ironic and ignorant. It is ironic because such commentators are treating criminals as though they are outside the scope of humanity: which is exactly how the criminals see their victims. But the idea that criminals don’t also have ties of affection and respect in their personal relations is obviously foolish. Just as most people separate their work lives from their private lives, so too most criminals are not defined exclusively by their criminal acts. Instead, those acts are means to ends, and the criminals’ needs are exactly the same as the needs of so-called law-abiding citizens: material security, intimate relationships, and status. Therefore, any serious analysis of crime must ask what factors lead to certain people turning to theft, rape and murder in order to achieve these basic goals of human existence.

Decades of research in social psychology and, more recently, behavioural economics show that human beings respond to incentives. That is to say, when you change the environment, people change their behaviour. Thus, if littering becomes socially unacceptable, fewer people throw rubbish out of their cars. 

This is also true for more serious crimes such as murder. If there are more murders in Trinidad today than there were 50 years ago, it is not because Trinidadians have become more violent. We always were violent. But murder is now a profitable act, largely because of the drug trade and State-funded programmes like the Unemployment Relief Programme. 

In my view, it is not coincidental that the homicide rate increased by over 300 percent in the very same period that the URP allocation rose to $300 million annually. That is the main legacy of the Patrick Manning 2001-2010 administration (and new PNM leader Keith Rowley’s silence on this issue speaks loudly). So changing those incentives, by revamping the URP and by following Chief Justice Ivor Archie’s recommendation to decriminalise marijuana, would change the behaviour of persons inclined to criminal behaviour.

Which brings us to the core question: why aren’t the UNC or the PNM willing to introduce such relatively simple reforms? As with the criminals, the answer lies in incentives: politicians have more to lose than gain by reducing crime through such measures.