Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | If crime was bush, we'd have the money

Published:Sunday | June 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM

As I sit to write, the country is convulsed with the story of an incredibly daring attack in Montego Bay. The word 'brazen' is being thrown around. It seems in this instance, the gangsters took their AK-47s to the vicinity of the courthouse with the intention of executing a man who was leaving the very court. To the public, it is being said this demonstrates how alarmingly dismissive gunmen are of the security forces. As if there was any doubt!

I have been finding that even those inured to the gruesome reality of an ever-escalating crime rate are cowering from these new shocks. Approximately 640 people have perished violently this year alone, with pregnant women, the elderly, and children fattening up the fearsome number.

This is a decline and fall that span multiple administrations, and even multiple generations. Something that stitched the society together previously is going missing, and it isn't attributable to a lack of material wealth. For despite the crime, standards of living have been increasing, but the problem gets worse.

It feels as if the society is slowly unravelling, and the Government is flailing around for a strategy.

So now it appears that the Government is gearing up to spend some serious money on national security. Brace yourself! This might even amount to some of the brand new second-hand cars actually reaching the police force! At any rate, Mr Holness issued a warning that there are budgetary consequences on the way:

"If gangs or crews are your most critical threat, then shouldn't you make allocations from your Budget to reflect [that]? That is the problem politicians face. How to convince the public that the threats that are critical to them should align to the budgetary allocation," Holness said.

The rhetorical question is more than a little surprising since it's the prime minister of the country speaking here. For surely, he is the single person on the island uniquely best suited to answer his own inquiry.

 

POLITICIANS NEED CONVINCING

 

With all due respect, Mr Holness has this completely bass-ackward. It's not the public that needs convincing that crime is an intolerable existential threat. It's the politicians.

He rightly should have said: "That's the problem that the public faces. How to convince the politicians that the threats that are critical should align to the budgetary allocation."

It is, after all, the political leadership who craft the Budget, although Mr Holness' statement would seem to place responsibility for it in the hands of some mysterious bogeyman.

Speaking of which, it might help somewhat if the crime problem was deliberately confused with the bushing problem, for which there didn't seem to be too much concern for budgetary trade-offs. Hence we could just call crime 'bush' and the money will magically appear.

That little bit of sauciness aside, it has to be said that it's a good sign that the administration is budget-minded, even in the midst of exigency, and the deficit numbers are looking good.

However, if we are to ever climb out of the economic hole we've dug ourselves into, it will require more than nominal economic growth, for which, in turn, the national security problem needs to be at least ameliorated.

The cost of high crime levels to the economy is very steep. Even beyond the loss of human life, when you consider such things as direct medical costs, loss of productive time and capacity, security costs, and the inhibition on investors and investment, every estimate I've seen places it at more than five per cent of annual GDP and sometimes significantly more. Essentially, had the crime epidemic been brought under some control over the last four decades, the Jamaican economy would be multiples of its current size.

But, alas, the political and social alchemy have never been quite right to make the sort of game-changing dent we need. And sadly, I don't think the stars are aligned auspiciously this time either.

My understanding, admittedly opaque, is that nobody is at all enthusiastic about being in charge of the national security portfolio. Minister Montague made no secret at the outset that this wasn't his preferred wicket. And, of course, since Mr Holness' Government is constructed on the strength of a single parliamentary seat, he's not necessarily in a position to order and direct at will, even if he had the talent and personnel to choose from.

It's a sorry state of affairs, but it's why even when Minister Montague sounds off-key with remarks such as his call for public calm on the basis that many of the murders are just gang members killing off each other, one has to temper criticism with the sobering thought that he's performing a job his colleagues are apparently anxious to avoid.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.