Coming soon to a neighbourhood near you...

 

There may be those who feel that there is no role for Parliament in the matter of solving the problems of crime and youth violence, and others still who may feel that, if there is a role at all, it is minimal.

I certainly believe there is a role for Parliament.  I want to look at my jurisdiction and to zero in on two specific pieces of legislation, while making reference to others. The two pieces of legislation are Sexual Offences Act and the Domestic Violence Act.

I have selected these two particular pieces of legislation for three reasons:

 

  1. They deal with crimes perpetrated by person(s) on other person(s);
  2. They represent a high percentage of cases that come to the High Courts, and
  3. The serious flaws in these pieces of legislation detract from their effectiveness.

 

Intellectuals over the ages have debated the question as to whether laws are made to shape societal behaviour or whether laws are enacted based on prevailing societal attitudes – a sort of legal version of which came first, the chicken or the egg conundrum.

Attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed over the world in the last 50 years. Fifty years ago, in most if not all countries in the world, a man could not be convicted for raping his wife. Today, Dominica is one of the very few countries in the world where once a woman says “I do’’, unless she divorces or separates from her husband legally or by virtue of an agreement or through a protection order, her husband cannot be found guilty of raping her. Fifty years ago, buggery was a crime the world over. Today, there a many countries where men are even permitted to marry each other; and women too, of course.

Even though the incident of domestic violence continues unabated, I truly believe that society is taking a different view of it:  It is no longer even remotely acceptable. But again, the question arises: Are those who are given the power to persecute the perpetrators under this very important law aware of their obligations? The true emancipation of the Dominican married woman who is now being viewed as a chattel in the Sexual Offences Act will only come when her “I do” is not held against her in the manner that the current provisions of that Act treat her. So there! I am firmly putting the blame on the state for the continuation of this state of affairs.

On 24 March 1998, a Bill to reform the law related to sexual offences was passed by the Parliament of Dominica. That Bill became the Sexual Offences Act. Before it went to Parliament, the Bill had been circulated in order that the public would make recommendations. The Dominica Planned Parenthood Association hosted a panel discussion on the proposed provisions and they sent by way of recommendation to the then Attorney General 10 major areas which they thought needed consideration for amendments. It was felt very strongly that besides needing strong enforcement provisions that would ensure that the Act works, these recommended amendments deserved consideration.

This idea of enforcement is what I am really leading to. Practitioners, of whom I am one, are aware that we pass legislation all the time and when we pass legislation we never think about the enforcement aspect of it. In the Sexual Offences Act, it is an offence to have sex with a minor and minor is defined as someone 16 and under.

But when a young girl presents herself to the hospital at the age 15 – even 15 and a half – and she is pregnant, is that not evidence that a crime has been committed? Who is then obliged to report the state of affairs to the police? Is it the mother? Is it the doctor? The nurse? That is what I am talking about:  enforcement mechanism. We have more laws than we care to have.  But are there built into these laws the mechanisms of enforcement that will make these laws workable?

We have other pieces of legislation that enable the curbing of certain criminal activities. For example, we now have laws which empower our Financial Intelligence Unit that are finally beginning to kick in. We recently passed proceeds of crime legislation and, under it, we saw where alleged drug persons were brought before the courts for having more wealth than they could account for.

This, as we know, is where the major portion of criminal activity comes up: dealing with drugs. There may be countries, or certain districts within a country, that may not have seen such type of criminal activity as yet; but be warned: It is coming soon to a neighbourhood near you!

It is crucial that when you have these types of legislation, such as the Proceeds of Crime Act and legislation dealing with internet crimes, you also have the mechanism of enforcement built in to ensure that these criminal activities can be dealt with expeditiously and it is clearly spelt out who has to take what steps so that these matters can be brought to the courts and prosecuted successfully.  What we need may not be more legislation but, rather, to amend existing pieces of legislation to include built-in mechanisms for their enforcement.  And when enacting new laws, we need to ensure that they include clear and unambiguous provisions for enforcement.

How can Parliament intervene legislatively to curb youth violence? Youth violence is generally viewed as a social problem requiring mainly social intervention. But I beg to differ. I have asked myself over and over again:  How can we successfully legislate parental responsibility? Can we?

Ought we to legislate to make parents, especially fathers, more responsible? Is it sufficient to haul fathers into court to maintain their children? I am asking this because, while we say youth violence, I will hazard a guess that 95 per cent of the perpetrators of this youth violence are male. I know what we can legislate. We can legislate curfews. Convicted young offenders should be placed on curfew, and that surely can be legislated. Also, the parents or guardians ought to be made legislatively responsible for ensuring that their youngsters under 18 years keep up with their curfew under pain of the parents themselves being held liable.

We need to remind ourselves frequently that today’s young offender is tomorrow’s hardened criminal. My colleague, the Leader of the Opposition of Dominica, just reminded me a while ago that we have very effective community policing going on in several communities in Dominica. I am not sure whether legislating community policing would give it any more efficacy, but it is worth a try. Everything that we can think of needs to be tried, because this scourge of youth violence in our midst has to be removed, eradicated once and for all.

My final word on this burning issue of Parliament’s role in solving the rise of crime is that this is one area in which both government and opposition can and should work together. We all – opposition, government and Speaker – need to put our heads and hearts together to eradicate this scourge from our midst.

Any takers? I hope so.