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Getting the small things right in our justice system

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For months, Vincentians have been debating the reasons for the wave of violent crime in our country and suggesting measures we could take to stem and reverse the tide.

Among the people commenting on this issue was prominent Vincentian public servant and lay preacher Laura Anthony-Browne, who used the ‘broken window theory’ as the basis for an article she wrote on the topic. She commented on the general breakdown in order in society and suggested it could be a cause of the problem. She called for us as a society to get the small things right, so as not to have to deal with things of a much more serious nature later. Mrs Anthony-Browne’s opinion, which was first published on Facebook, was so well received that it was shared extensively on Facebook and other social media platforms and republished in local newspapers, including SEARCHLIGHT.

In our Midweek edition of SEARCHLIGHT this past Tuesday, we published a story about Colin Williams, a 46-year-old handyman of Georgetown, who was jailed for six months, after he was convicted of stealing four bags of garlic, worth $20 from a supermarket. This story was immediately picked up by commentators on social media and on talk radio, most of whom felt that the penalty meted out was too harsh and suggested that Williams should have instead been sentenced to community service or made to pay a fine.

We suspect that the sympathies of many were aroused because the item stolen — garlic — is a food item and the convict said he needed it to season tri tri. That excuse is suspect, because for one to need four bags of garlic, one must have needed to season several rivers full of tri tri.

The reason for needing the garlic aside, very few of the people who feel that Williams was harshly treated by the justice system come from the community in which he lives. Most residents of his home community have a very different take on the situation and other people might too, had their security and that of their property been under threat. In this particular case, the aggravating factors included previous conviction, the victim’s statement and attempts to deceive the police and court.

The magistrate acted in his wisdom, authority and the law, and handed down a sentence he felt was warranted, taking all factors into consideration. Theft is theft, and the law is not structured so that the sentence would reflect whether the item stolen is big or small. Petty criminals move on to commit more serious crimes if they are repeatedly only given slaps on the wrist when they offend. Remember the ‘broken glass theory’.

But we expect law enforcement, and the justice system in general, to act swiftly and fairly in all cases, in order to nip in the bud tendencies towards deviance and disorder. The system must not act only when the offender is a poor person, without political or social connections. It is this perception by the public that some people are above the law, and never spend one minute in a police station or courthouse for perceived offences, which causes the backlash and accusations of unfair treatment.

Whether reckless driving, theft, drug trafficking, wounding or murder, justice must be even-handed and it must be seen to be that way.

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