Letter: Crime, Caribbean-style: Lessons from St Vincent – Part 3

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Dear Sir:

Despite the intense interest in the alleged increase in crime in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) in recent years, comprehensive local records are out of date or incomplete. Notwithstanding the unwillingness of the current regime to share information about this important topic with the citizenry in a timely fashion, except for murder statistics – which it cannot easily conceal — Table 1 summarizes the locally available crime records for the nine year 2008-2016 period (with the 2008-2012 data gathered from local records).

  1. The figures refer only to reports made to or by the police. They do not reflect actual arrests or convictions for criminal activity. This is a critical issue that cannot be overemphasized. For example, property crimes involving the theft of low value or small amounts of items via shoplifting, pickpocketing, and other petty theft generally go unreported in SVG as they do around the world. But this does not necessarily mean that the extent of such crimes is lower or higher in SVG than in other countries, an issue I explore in a later essay where I will argue that SVG has always been a hyper-theft society going back to the slavery era.

 

  1. Since the figures show a great deal of fluctuation from year to year, a longer time period, say 20 years, would be needed to discover long-term trends.

 

  1. The reported violent crime rate in 2012 was 2,141 per 100,000 population while the reported property crime rate was 2,752 per 100,000 population. By global standards, the first figure is very high: over five times higher than the United States for the same year. The second figure is very similar to the United States rate for the same year.

 

  1. The data do not include arrests for growing, possessing, selling, or consuming cannabis (marijuana) or cocaine, which are tabulated separately, and which together showed an average of 380 yearly convictions (as opposed to reports) during these five years.

 

  1. Again, as in other countries, many crimes including sexual assaults like rape, other physical assault, and crimes against property are never reported to the authorities. For example, unless there is provable evidence of the perpetrator, praedial larceny (the theft of farm produce) and the money laundering of the illegal proceeds of the marijuana and cocaine trade are rarely reported.

 

  1. Sexual assault includes adult rape but is exceeded by the combination of statutory rape (coerced or forced rape of a person under the age of 15), incest, and indecent assault (for example, groping someone on their private parts). Again, a great deal of sexual assault – perhaps 70 percent or more, if SVG is like other countries around the world – is never reported to the authorities. Nevertheless, the data show that reported sexual assaults have seesawed over the years as has the crime of robbery. There is no upward trend in these crimes, as Dr. Godwin Friday, leader of the main opposition New Democratic Party has repeatedly implied.

 

  1. “Other assault” includes wounding with a weapon (infrequently including a firearm) and assault causing bodily harm (beating someone without the use of a weapon). It is also reasonable to assume that many such assaults are not reported to the police, especially when they involve “bad boys” who prefer to settle matters among themselves.

 

  1. The most serious crime of all in our society — murder — represented less than one-quarter of one percent of all crimes during the five-year period even though it is by far the most reported and publicized of criminal acts. In fact, this proportion would be much lower still if the figures in Table 1 referred to actual crimes as opposed to reported

 

Though the average of 24 murders during the 2008-2012 period is well below the average of 34 during the 2013-2017 period, the data I have found (which contains unfortunate gaps for the 2013-2016 period) does not say that total crimes other than murder have also increased significantly during this period. None of this diminishes the seriousness, moral or otherwise, of unlawfully taking the life of another person, only that such acts must be contextualized to be understood. Still, it is important to note that the average number of murders during the nine-year period shown in Table 1 was 28 per year. Even if the 40 murders in 2017 are included, this average would be 29.

 

  1. By far the most common crimes in SVG are property crimes: shoplifting, pickpocketing, damage to property, fraud, theft of animals and agricultural produce, burglary, and other forms of petty and large-scale larceny. Again, except perhaps when it comes to burglary, the reported number of such crimes grossly underestimates their true extent along with the fact that such crimes have been with us since European settlement if not earlier.

 

How do these crime rates compare to other countries in the world? This is an important question because if it turns out that we have a very low comparative crime rate, we should simply be grateful for this and move on. If, on the other hand, our crime rate is sky-high by global standards, we should ask ourselves why this is so and what can be done to reduce it.

Though other examples will be given in future essays, a single case will suffice to at least question the one-to-one correlation between crime and economic factors like poverty and unemployment. In one of the richest countries in the world with one of world’s lowest unemployment rates – the United States — the estimated 2012 rate of violent crime was 387 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants while the property crime rate was 2,859 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants. The difference between the United States and SVG (see point 3 above) is of interest on two grounds.

First, most people would be surprised that for a country that continues to have a generalized “Wild West” reputation for violence based on its history of armed conflict to obtain independence from Great Britain in 1776, the brutal treatment of the aboriginal population highlighted by the “Indian Wars” in the late 19th century, the lawlessness and violence of the settlement of the western part of the country that produced the Wild West characterization, the brutality shown to the large African American population during and after the slavery era, the habitual portrayal of America as a global war monger, the disturbing number of contemporary mass shootings, and the country’s world-leading gun ownership numbers, little SVG still had a violent crime rate over five times higher in 2012 than America and presumably many other years before and after.

Second, it appears surprising that rich America had a reported property crime rate in 2012 that was four percent higher than a relatively poor country like SVG unless it is simplistically argued that there is more to steal in the United States. Again, however, it needs to be asked whether reports of such crimes are simply higher in the United States.

Both observations suggest that the relation between crime and poverty is much more complex than Dr. Friday would have us believe, an assertion examined throughout this series of essays.

***

This is the third in a series of essays on crime and the economy in the Caribbean with special reference to SVG. The others are listed below:

  1. Crime, Caribbean-style: Lessons from St Vincent – Part 1
  2. Crime, Caribbean-style: Lessons from St Vincent – Part 2

***
C. ben-David

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