Crime – Part Two

| 13/02/2009

In 1997, on instructions from the FCO, our governor invited the Cayman Islands public to determine what changes it would like to see happen by the year 2008.

The governor appointed a Planning Team to identify 16 topics of importance, and to set broad terms of reference for 16 committees. The committees were open to any and all volunteers – native Caymanians, immigrants and transients alike. Some were regular attendees, others dropped in and out. The committees’ recommendations were decided by consensus, not by majority vote.

It’s a pity there wasn’t a 17th committee on the topic of crime. Maybe crime wasn’t a big issue back in 1997. But it is a big issue today, and there’s no reason why a 17th committee couldn’t be ordered up now.

The Vision-2008 exercise was not wholly free of political manipulation, of course. Many of the Committee Chairmen were political cronies or stooges. I had a front-row view of the shenanigans that changed the Immigration Committee’s report after it had been signed-off. Also, there were spies parachuted into at least one of the other committees for the purpose of derailing recommendations for reform.

I guess concessions had to be made to the politicians of the day, who were naturally wary of this wild venture into genuine democratic free speech. The same things would happen with a Crime Committee. There would certainly be solid resistance from those in our community who benefit from crime, directly or indirectly. I don’t think those people can be defeated by a committee of volunteers; but we have to do what we can.

When it comes to drafting a Crime Committee’s formal terms of reference, our governor might follow the lead of the legendary Greek of 2600 years ago whose surname or nickname was reported to be Draco, which was more or less the Greek word for “dragon”. He was commissioned to give the early mini-state of Athens its first written, public, legal code. Faced with a mixture of unpublished written laws and arbitrarily enforced oral traditions, he decided to write down every single rule in current use. Thus, the citizens and foreign residents of the community got to see exactly what their laws said. There was hell to pay when they realized how harsh and arbitrary some of the secret laws were.

In time, as memories faded, poor Draco was misremembered as the actual creator of the harsh rules, instead of merely their recorder. The word “draconian” came to be applied to harsh laws in general; and that’s how it is used today. In time, too, the hereditary ruling class allowed some of the harsh laws to be abandoned, and the unfair punishments to be eased. The easing gradually morphed into what came to be called “democracy” – the power of the whole citizenry to decide, by voting, what its laws should be.

This is much the same situation we have in Cayman now. Our population is rather more than Athens’s was in Draco’s day, but the composition was pretty much the same. Serious tensions existed between bloodline natives and foreign residents then, and there, as they exist here and now. Our governor could commission a Crime Committee to codify all our unwritten laws and arbitrarily enforced oral traditions, and to publish the code.

In theory, all our laws are available to be read by citizens and foreign residents. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, right? However, in practice we need to pay professional interpreters to tell us exactly what the laws say. Few of our laws are easily readable by non-lawyers. (That’s why we need Legal Aid for the poor – though I hear it has just been cancelled. So much for our precious “Rule of Law”. What a joke.) In practice, most laws are secret to the general public. Hands up all those who feel confident they know all the rules governing immigration? Huh. I don’t even see Franz’s hand up.

In theory, all our laws are applied equally to citizens and foreign residents. In practice, the protection of the law is largely withheld from our lowest-paid transient workers. Many of our rules are enforced or not enforced at the discretion of government officials. Enforcement or non-enforcement largely depends on access to citizens of influence. That influence can usually be bought, by cash, favour or friendship. Yes, the protection of the law can be bought.

What we have in Cayman is a pre-Draco situation. As a community we have learnt to live with the discretionary application of the law, however distasteful we find it. But if we must buy influence and justice and the protection of the law, at least let’s have a published schedule of fees. Even a “marl road” schedule would be better than the present system. Many countries in the world have word-of-mouth schedules of unofficial fees. We would not be alone.

Our Work Permit system cries out for some formalization, doesn’t it? So does our Planning approval system. It has long been joked that in some government agencies, no file goes missing if it has a $100 bill clipped inside its cover, and a file can be fast-tracked in exchange for a case of whisky at Christmas. But nobody likes to be over-charged, and there needs to be a proper schedule.

How much of their migrant workers’ wages can a dishonest employer withhold before being held to account? How many times must a domestic servant ask for her unpaid wages before being deported for being sassy? I must say I would like to know those things, if I were a domestic servant. It seems only fair.

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