It is widely accepted that a robust justice system is a deterrent to violent crime, but in democracies like ours, that seems to be but a dream out there. Maybe the lawyers have become too smart, or maybe the emphasis on the protection of the rights of citizens is too great. The defense lawyers place the blame for much of the failure of the justice system on the police. They charge that the Police Department is incompetent and ill-equipped and corrupt.
It is a fact that in democracies across the world, police departments are no longer getting the results in the courts that they once did. In Belize, where during “colonial” days a murder would be followed within a few weeks by a hanging, we now flounder with a 5 percent conviction rate in murder cases, a percentage which would be even lower if murders precipitated by passion weren’t included in the statistics.
It has been suggested in some quarters that past success in solving murder cases is a mirage, and worse, massive fraud. It is not infrequent that in the great democracy north of us, the USA, people serving life sentences for murder are set free, because new evidence is unearthed that proves their innocence. In the USA, a very wealthy country, unsolved murder cases seemingly are never closed. The Metropolitan Police Department at the website mpdc.dc.gov, says that murder cases are pursued by the original investigating officers for up to four years, and if that investigation is unsuccessful, they are sent to the Major Case/Cold Case Squad, which reviews “unsolved cases in a systematic and comprehensive manner.”
While the US justice system doesn’t halt its efforts to find and convict murderers, people convicted of murder, particularly those who claim they were wrongly convicted, are assisted by numerous wealthy advocates. When a murder conviction is overturned in the US, there is joy for the wrongfully incarcerated individual and their family; great celebration in some quarters that their justice system, which they insist is flawed, is exposed; and always there is a sizable remuneration for the wrongly convicted person and the lawyers who worked on their case.
No researcher has reported on how many, if any, individuals were wrongfully sent to the gallows in Belize in the old days, but if that occurred, it is a small consolation that since murder was so rare in Belize then, the number wouldn’t be great. To address our present woeful conviction rate in murder trials, our prosecution department has resorted to imposing the lesser charge of manslaughter in many cases. The politicians in power introduced trial by judge instead of by jury after two lawyers were shot, one fatally, and our conviction rate has inched up since. We have also beefed up our forensics capacity, though not yet to the level that could scare cold-blooded Belizeans away from committing the crime.
We need to work harder at eliminating poverty
Defense lawyers are not alone in pointing out that if our nation properly addressed poverty, there would be far less violent crime. It is the promise of all political parties that if they are elected they will end economic deprivation, but to date no government has had any success there. In fact, our poverty rate, by any measure, was increasing even before the Covid-19 pandemic came and devastated our economy. In a little over two years, the jury’s verdict will come in on the performance of our present government in that area, and their hope will be that the people don’t forget where our economy was when they took office.
Corruption in government, the illegal drug trade, and the low education level of many of our citizens are areas all agree must be addressed in order for us to get out of our poverty. The present government was supposed to, had promised to, tackle corruption in all its forms, particularly through the enabling of critical sections of the UN Convention against Corruption, but after beginning the process their energies were steered off into the full-scale revamping of the Constitution.
An initiative to legalize marijuana got derailed when a church-led effort garnered sufficient signatures to trigger a referendum if the government moved to implement legislation it had passed. There’s been no attempt by the government to explain why it hasn’t scaled down its ambitions on marijuana, why it hasn’t dropped the idea of making marijuana a new growth industry, for export, at this time, and instead put its efforts into its production and sale locally. Some who favor relaxed control of marijuana have charged that the government’s plan is strictly for the rich, that on the ground it would be more restrictive than the present decriminalization law.
Dr. Osmond Martinez, the CEO in the Ministry of Finance, Economic Development and Investment, told the hosts of the KREM WuB morning show, Nuri Muhammad and Katie Usher, that our human capital index, individuals who have completed secondary and tertiary education, is among the lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean. With the introduction of free education on the extremely impoverished south side of Belize City, plans to expand free education to Toledo, the restructuring of the primary school curriculum, more emphasis on vocational schools, and the introduction of STEAM (a new approach to learning Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) the government will get points for its bold steps toward addressing our deficiency of human capital.
It’s unanimous that if we improve our human capital there’ll be less poverty and less violent crime. It is not a new goal but, unfortunately, it has proved elusive. We are taking an extremely long time getting there. When will our human capital index reach that level where these horrors of violence and extreme poverty are behind us?
One area we seldom look at when we discuss our horrific violence situation is the growing disparity in wealth. We seldom talk about it, but Belize was a more peaceful country when the wealth gap wasn’t so large. Income disparity destabilizes a nation. The Cuban nation would probably not have survived the crushing US embargo if the entrepreneurial and educated elite in that country had carved out the lion’s share for themselves. I. Kawachi and B. P. Kennedy, in the research paper “Health and social cohesion: why care about income inequality?” observed that income inequality led to “increased rates of crime and violence, impeded productivity and economic growth, and the impaired functioning of representative democracy.”
Few would contest the observation that the focus of the majority of haves in Belize is almost solely on increasing their pay scale instead of assisting those in need. The well-off are too eager to condemn the less fortunate as being lazy, and blame the government for our stagnating at third-world-country level. That must make them sleep better at night, that and their good fortune.
It must become our undivided mission to hasten this day when justice reigns throughout the land, the tyrant poverty is no more, the national pie is shared more equally, and our human capital index is among the highest. Then the fruitful fields of England shall provide for all Belizeans. Getting there will be much easier and faster if all hands are on deck, sacrificing for Belize.