Confronted by the ineradicable scourge of gun crimes, the Government is taking the predictable path of tougher laws and more jail-time since it seems to be easier to deal with the symptoms than the fundamental causes. Having repeatedly but vainly held out hope that tough legislation is what is needed to rein in such crimes, an increasingly cynical public is likely, at best, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude to the assurance of National Security Minister Stuart Young that the Firearms Amendment Bill will make this country a safer place.
Speaking up in Parliament for his strategy of putting away repeat shooter criminals for life, Minister Young was bold enough to tout the promised power of the bill: “Criminals will stop in their tracks. I guarantee you,” he said. He was advocating the three-tier sentencing for gun-possessing criminals from a $250,000 fine and ten years, through 20 years and no fine, climaxing with jail for the rest of one’s natural life for breach of the proposed law. The approach is hardly original since this sentencing scheme was adopted in the United States with the catchy baseball line: “Three Strikes, You’re Out!”
In US terms, this slogan signals remaining in jail until death, without any chance of parole, or being released on grounds of good behaviour or evidence of rehabilitation. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, however, parole is not part of the justice system, although Minister Young noted that criminals sentenced to life could apply to the Mercy Committee. To that, he should have added, “in principle”. There are still individuals in jail who have served more than the maximum time that they would have been required to serve if convicted but are still waiting to have their cases heard. If there is a priority for the attention of the Mercy Committee it should be those.
In the US, the jury of public opinion in still out on whether the “three strikes” provision has reduced crime. In T&T Independent Senator Sophia Chote has argued against locking up gun criminals and throwing away the key. But in the US, liberal groups have noted that even with one million persons behind bars, crimes have not been deterred.
None of this discourages Minister Young. “This is our push back,” he said. “It is literally a war taking place out there.” Locking up gun-toting criminals provides no solace to those who have lost their loved ones to deadly hits ordered by criminals who were assumed to be safely behind bars. In any case, the easy availability of guns has ensured that there is never a vacuum left unfilled when a gunman is put out of commission.
Even with all the laws on the books, no one can feel safe from a bullet, whether targeted or stray. Not even careful prosecution witnesses are exempt. In one poignant recent example, a mother who had testified for the prosecution in a murder trial was herself shot dead in the company of her young son. Reliance on the State for the protection of witnesses and trustworthy prison management need to be addressed at the same time, and with the same purposefulness of “Three Strikes, You’re Out”.