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Mixing punishment and mediation

Friday, December 3, 2010

Two very different but yet complimentary approaches to dealing with gang-related criminal activities were reported in this newspaper yesterday:<!--break--> One, the introduction of anti-gang legislation; the other, mediation as a means of resolving gang crime. The intent of the legislation is to severely punish offenders with heavy fines and long prison terms. Such terms could reach the maximum—life imprisonment for convicted gang leaders for their notorious crimes. Other penalties carry sentences reaching up to 25 and 20 years in jail with fines amounting to as high as $500,000.  The legislation comes to the Parliament against the background of intense and widespread gangland activities which is widely held to be responsible for a large percentage of the criminal culture of the day. A particularly abhorrent aspect of the gang activity, catered for by the legislation, is the indoctrination and recruitment of children into these nefarious criminal gangs.

Reports are that many of these children are initiated into the gangs from as early as 10 years old. That amounts to robbing children of their lives, depriving parents of the benefit of their offspring and depleting the nation of its invaluable human resources. However, there must be some caution about the stated position of Justice Minister Herbert Volney—that draconian measures should be accepted simply on the basis that there is “some protection in it to cover the innocent.” However grim the situation of the present is, there must always be a thought for the long-term and how such legislation can be used to abrogate human rights. But, in a different approach to countering crime, we also carried an extensive interview yesterday with High Court Judge Vasheist Kokaram advocating mediation as a means of even eliminating gangs. The judge, based on an experiment with what is called a Court Annexed Mediation Pilot Project, argues the case for mediation as having “therapeutic value” to solve problems.

“We need to transform persons in gangs to let them know there is a different way of life. It is a step towards trying to dissolve gangs themselves,” said Justice Kokaram. We therefore have the different approaches with different intended outcomes, but both with the same objective of reducing and/or, in the most optimistic view, eliminating the gangs and the culture of violent crime. Undoubtedly there is value in both the retributive approach, society getting its pound of flesh out of the criminals, and the restorative justice approach, transforming criminals from their habits with society benefiting by people not having to be subject to physical harm and psychological abuse. In the US, restorative justice is a relatively new approach and is based on having offenders be responsible for their crimes through community service and making good to the victims of crime.

And, most importantly, having them interface with the people they so violated that they, the offenders, get to have some appreciation of how harmful their actions have been to their victims.  “When implemented correctly, victim-offender programmes can provide substantial benefits to victims, offenders, and the community” is a conclusion drawn by the victim-offender programme in the US. Over the last five years in Trinidad, the Vision on a Mission group, headed by a former offender, has been embarking on a programme of restorative justice. The group has had some measure of support from succeeding governments and the business community for its work, that being indicative of the success achieved and the potential for even greater success. Clearly there is a need for both approaches: For those who have gone too far, society needs to be protected against them; and for those especially young misled offenders, rehabilitation should be the objective.


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