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Managing crime with a curfew?

By Dana Seetahal

Many people have been calling for a removal of the curfew because of the detrimental effect on the national economy. As one person put it—the curfew is crippling an already stagnant economy. On the other hand, some people say when the curfew hours were reduced, crime went back up so there is justification in maintaining a curfew or even in returning to the more restrictive hours. The Minister of National Security has stated that the curfew is being reviewed and there is even a possibility that it could be removed.

Curfew Orders

It is not the first time that imposing a curfew has been utilised as a means of curbing crime. In some countries, a court is empowered with the right to sentence offenders to a curfew order as part of a sentence in lieu of a term of imprisonment. Persons are allowed to stay at home but must be in by specified times, such as 8 p.m.

In the UK, for instance, at one time courts could impose "stand alone" curfew sentences, where a person had to remain in one specified place during certain times of up to 12 hours. Now that has been changed so that the curfew is part of a more complex community sentence, including electronic monitoring as well as other requirements such as the performance of work.

A curfew order in the countries which have them are however part of a sentence imposed on specific people who have been convicted of crimes. In the case of the curfew here in T&T, it is imposed in areas throughout Trinidad so that for all intents and purposes it is treated as if it were nationwide. The police themselves have even asked (wrongly) businesses to close in areas that are outside the curfew. People in authority have taken it upon themselves to warn citizens in non-curfew areas to remain inside even if they are outside the curfew areas.

Undesirable conditions

As I have previously said, living under curfew conditions is not a natural or desirable way to exist. It is almost an admission of national immaturity. The apparent reduction in violent crime in the last six weeks or so can be no excuse for calling for the resumption of more restrictive curfew hours or the maintenance of the curfew much longer.

We have individual rights and while the Constitution allows for some infringement to the extent that we do not affect others' rights and on the grounds of national security, the latter is in exceptional circumstances.

I am not here querying the necessity for calling the current State of Emergency. Assuming the Government did need to do so to avert an unknown and unnamed crisis—well it has been averted, hasn't it? One cannot, therefore, expect an entire country to continue in this state just in case there is a relapse, so to speak. If that were the case, then the nation would have to be under a State of Emergency and curfew forever. This is why I do not accept the contention that because people feel safer under emergency conditions this is a justification for continuing with the State of Emergency, and by extension the curfew, indefinitely. Because I feel safer in my house does not and cannot mean that I will or should remain locked in at all times.

Further, this is contrary to the very spirit of an "emergency". An emergency cannot be ongoing. It is a "serious, unexpected and potentially dangerous situation requiring immediate action", according to the dictionary meaning of the word. That situation allows rights to be suspended for the time needed to deal with the emergency.

It may well be as the Prime Minister claims the State of Emergency period has/will give us the opportunity to reclaim our country. The security forces have had that opportunity for nearly six weeks. If they have not done so by now, then it is debatable whether continuing much further with our suspension of rights will do so.

Serious crime

As for the contention that serious crime has decreased during this time—well, what do you expect? Once the police ranks are doubled with the Defence Force; the police have greater powers of arrest; there was a hiatus on public meetings; and we were under curfew restrictions, it would have been amazing if there were no reduction in crime.

The fact that serious crime has picked up again merely demonstrates that people adapt and among them are criminals. If we continued with the State of Emergency and curfew for another year, before the end of that year it is more than probable that even then the crime rate would be back to where it was—if other measures are not put in place that can control crime.

We are not in a state of war, as currently exists in some countries in the world where dangerous and life-threatening situations abound. That would be the only rationale for continuing with a State of Emergency for any extended period of time.

In short, therefore, a State of Emergency can only be for a limited time, else it offends against its very nature. The apparent reduction in crime will not continue. Citizens' rights that are affected by the State of Emergency should not be suspended indefinitely because of the fact that some citizens feel safer now. The Government, having averted the crisis it claimed led to the calling of a State of Emergency, would be justified in reconsidering that strategy. A national State of Emergency cannot be a crime-fighting tool for ordinary criminal activity.

We have had a reprieve from violent crime. Now is the time to return to normalcy of everyday living; to national maturity and to rescuing our economy. Start by terminating the curfew.

• Dana S Seetahal is a former

independent senator.

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