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Editorial: If Crime Is To Be Reduced, Stiffer Penalties Are Needed

HOW many more bodies wearing ankle bracelets are to be picked up from the highways and byways of this island before our courts get the message?

On Friday night, the body of a man in his early twenties was found off Nassau Street. He had been shot. It is believed to be the body of one Valentino Ferguson. According to police he was wearing an ankle bracelet. All the police would say was that he was out on “bail for a serious matter.” We understand that that “serious matter” was murder.

A week ago, Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade repeated a message that he has been preaching ever since he has been Commissioner. Police, he said, have been recycling prolific offenders because of a lack of firm punishment in the courts. He repeated his oft expressed refrain when he reminded the authorities that “no amount of arrests and aggressive police tactics” can limit crime if “the people who are coming into the system, that is the bad people who are committing crimes, very serious crimes in this country, are not dealt with in a very firm way.”

In September 2015 — two years ago —during a walk about in the Kemp Road area an exasperated Commissioner told the press that police officers will continue “to pick dead bodies up off the streets if those in authority do nothing to keep criminals behind bars.”

We know that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but the consequence for those who freely choose to add a string of offences behind their name should know that they — of their own free will — have chosen to jeopardise the presumption of innocence. For the offender’s own sake and the sake of society a prison cell is his best protection until he gets his day in court.

Of course, what is happening today is “justice” being executed on the streets, thus shortening the court calendar as crimes are struck from the lists as having been settled by the bullet. In other words justice today has been taken to the back alleys. It also saves the already overcrowded prison from having to make room for new inmates.

“We are working like crazy to keep a lid on this terrible thing but as long as our young sons walk around with guns in their hands with the propensity to kill — they have done it before they will do it again - and we do nothing to keep them behind bars we will continue to pick up dead bodies,” said the Commissioner.

“This is going to offend a lot of people but something must be done to get those people out of communities and where they belong until they have their day in court,” Mr Greenslade said.

“It can’t be right for a man to walk around with an illegal firearm to be arrested, and a few days later he is waving at the same officers that arrested him as if nothing has happened. There is something wrong with the equation. I do not want to get caught up in numbers or whether the murder count is going to be high or low, the reality is one dead body in the Bahamas is one dead body too many. I am begging for support and help.

“If we arrest people that have committed the most egregious crimes in this country and they have re-offended more than once but are still walking around, something is wrong with that. Something needs to be done because arresting them is not solving the problem. We cannot arrest ourselves out of this situation.”

At the same time – September 2015 – former National Security Minister, the late Dr Bernard Nottage, blamed the judiciary for the country’s crime problem. He was critical of judges for not imposing stiffer penalties and not properly enforcing the laws that are on the books. Speaking in the House at the time he claimed that some magistrates give lighter sentences to criminals because the accused is someone in society’s “good son.” He found it hard to believe that some judges live in the same country and still only give criminals “a slap on the wrist” when they appear before them.

In the House of Assembly last month Health Minister Dr Duane Sands said that The Bahamas had the highest homicide rate in the world — triple the rate that the World Health Organisation considers an epidemic. He also said the rate would be even higher if skilled Bahamian doctors did not save the lives of the many who have been shot or stabbed.

When we first started our career reporting the courts — a lifetime ago— no one charged with murder could get bail. Consideration should be given to going back to those days. Also it is so unsafe on the streets today for anyone wearing an ankle bracelet for a serious crime that they should be the ones to want the security of the prison walls for their own survival.

We recall our first meeting with Commissioner Greenslade many years ago when a young man needed the protection of the police.

One day sitting at our desk in the newsroom, we looked up to see a very frightened young man standing before us.

“I want you to turn me in to the police,” he said simply.

He was in a gang, which he desperately wanted to leave, but was afraid to do so because he would be killed. The police were also looking for him. He was afraid that if they saw him first he would be shot. No matter which way he turned he was looking down the barrel of a gun. However, he believed he would be more secure with the police if we would hand him over to them. We had never seen him before. We were satisfied that he was a sincere young man who had gone astray and genuinely wanted to change his life style and be accepted back into society.

We telephoned then Commissioner of Police Reginald Ferguson, who promised to send an officer to The Tribune to collect the young man. Ellison Greenslade arrived and even to this day we are still impressed at how well he handled this frightened youngster. They left our office with the police officer’s arms around the shoulders of the young offender. Police Officer Greenslade had completely won this young offender’s confidence and was about to help him start a new life.

This young man knew that he was safer in the hands of the law rather than out on the streets, a target of what once was his own gang.

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