Straight talk needed on gangs
Last Friday, MPs were told they will be asked to make permanent anti-gang laws implemented on a temporary basis a decade ago.
The laws mean that for crimes where gang involvement can be proved, those convicted can face up to five additional years in prison while fines can increase by up to $10,000.
Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General, explained that contrary to hopes in 2012 that they would be necessary only for a short time, the police and prosecution services felt they were still necessary and that rather than renewing them every few years, they should become law permanently.
On the surface, this seems reasonable.
But if you dig a little deeper, a host of troubling questions surface.
Ms Simmons effectively admitted that her party, when in power until the end of 2012, was naive in believing that the gang problem could be swept away with harsher penalties; that tougher sentences would be a sufficient and rapid deterrent. Clearly, given the recent wave of gang-related gun crimes and murders, they were not and are not.
In what was either a strikingly honest admission or an inadvertent slip, Ms Simmons accused Progressive Labour Party icon Dame Jennifer Smith — who led the party to power for the first time — of being among those who underestimated the problem, noting that Dame Jennifer had dismissed concerns because at the time, some ten years before the laws had passed, she said they concerned only 4 per cent of the population.
Ms Simmons did not name Dame Jennifer. She was identified as a former premier, and in fact made the remarks about a decade before this legislation was passed. But the fact remains: until its election defeat in 2012, the PLP failed to deal with the gang problem.
But if the powers that be — and the police — at first failed to grasp the gravity of the problem and allowed it to fester for years before even admitting gangs existed, then they failed to act sufficiently when they did admit it.
That the PLP government of the day thought that heightened penalties would deter people from joining gangs and that they would be needed for only a short time showed an astonishing and depressing complacency.
This is not intended as an ad hominem attack on a particular political party. It is true that the rise of gangs was unprecedented. No doubt the old United Bermuda Party would have struggled with it as well. But it is important to note that for a host of reasons, not all of them related to specific policy decisions, gang activity and violent crime declined while the One Bermuda Alliance was in power and has now risen again.
When MPs go to the House of Assembly next Friday to debate this measure, they owe it to their constituents to ask some tough questions.
The first would be to ask how often in the past decade these penalties have been imposed.
The second is whether the additional penalties in the laws have worked. The evidence would suggest that they have not.
Third would be to ask, if they have not worked, whether the penalties were tough enough. Perhaps they should be even harsher.
But the alternative question is whether these deterrents are effective at all. They are designed to discourage and deter people from joining gangs in the first place and from staying in them. But it may be that the thought that you might go to prison for longer if you are caught simply does not occur to an aspiring gang member.
Young people have a general belief in their own immortality. Having experienced few setbacks in life, they assume they can get away with things that those tempered by experience will not risk.
Further, if you are already committed to committing murder — and up to three people this year have been — the thought you might spend 25 years in prison instead of 20 may not matter very much.
So Ms Simmons needs to explain to MPs whether these laws are working and if not, why not.
MPs will be tempted to pass them so they can look tough on crime, which is more or less what they did a decade ago. But they may be wasting their and the taxpayers’ time.
Headlines about harsher penalties for gangs or the national security minister saying he is going to shut down the borders for guns will no doubt generate social-media likes and short-term political gains.
But the truth — and Michael Weeks, the minister, knows this as well as anyone — is that reducing gang activity requires hard grassroots work and, more than that, it requires a change in the conditions that lead young people, especially men, into joining gangs.
Leroy Bean, who has been given responsibility for deterring gangs with mixed success, touched on some of the deep-seated problems, although he did not go nearly far enough.
Change requires better education and better educational opportunities. It requires an end to social promotion and an emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy, coupled with job preparedness.
It requires support for families and male role models who can present a more positive image than gangstas, rappers and drug dealers.
It requires a growing economy where training is available for everything from construction to computer science so that young Bermudians can aspire to skilled jobs that pay well. It requires giving young people hope and choices.
It requires political leadership that encourages inclusion and diversity, not division, cheap spin and one-upmanship.
It means ensuring that parents have financial security so they can be in the home with their children and not out hustling to pay the rent.
Many of these problems will not be solved overnight and are far from exclusive to the gang problem. But it would be a start if politicians and other leaders were honest about them.
If not, the cycle will continue.