Our country has been ravaged in recent times by the scourge of violence – and in particular youth violence among males. It is obvious that we are facing dire consequences if our response is not strategic and long term. While there have been many calls for various measures that address the temporary aspects of solutions, there is also a need now for a long-term strategic plan.
The reality is that our current culture of violence is not a recent development but something that was sown long ago and is now, unfortunately, bearing fruit. The reality is our culture has become very negative – including our entertainment, music, movies. Our children are growing up on a steady diet of guns, gangs, violence, intoxication and sexual exploitation and it is these factors, along with moral, social and family decay that have produced what we are facing today. Case in point, according to the Barna research group in the United States, 33 percent of teenagers have been drunk before, 25 percent use illegal drugs, 20 percent have considered or attempted suicide, and the average teenager will see 100,000 acts of violence by the age of 18 years old. They will experience 14,000 sexual references and acts per year. Nine out of 10 youth would have viewed online pornography by the age of 15. Even our video games are wrought with sexual acts and references, violence and blood.
Today’s negative culture is formed by sustained exposure to negative factors creating a desensitization of this generation to human life and their own well-being. Most of popular music today prepares youth for prison rather than college. Today’s lyrics tout gun violence, gang violence, “street credibility” and even labels and artists referring to themselves as murderers. According to other statistics, in America 33 percent of Black males between the ages of 20-29 (Marc Mauer, Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later, (Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 1995) have either been in prison, are in prison, on probation or have been on probation. The Bahamas, if not careful, will possibly approach these statistics in this generation where a large segment of our male population will live within the prison system.
In The Bahamas, 66 percent of girls and 57 percent of boys (high school students) have felt like hurting or killing someone. Some 35 percent of males and 13 percent of females carry weapons outside of school. The leading cause of death (50 percent of all deaths) among males 15 to 19 was homicide. Twenty-one percent of high school boys and six percent of girls reported being involved in a fight previously where weapons were involved. (Inter-American Development Bank Situation of youth in The Bahamas final report January 2005).
Not only are we suffering from youth violence, we also have adult violence and domestic violence to the point where even members of Parliament and church leaders have in some instances resorted to violence to solve disputes. Clearly, we have to change our culture from one of violence, lawlessness and debauchery to one of positive values. In order for change to take place, collective responsibility and collective action must be taken.
While the long-term solution is tied to moral and spiritual change, there are some things I feel that can be done now to reduce the crime rate and ensure that more criminals are in prison rather than on the streets continuing to harm law-abiding citizens.
The following are my specific recommendations:
Plea bargain and probation system: Since courts are continually clogged with a backlog of cases, plea bargains can be introduced (or accelerated) and coupled with a strict probation system where offenders who break their probation conditions are immediately sent back to prison. This system seems to work well in the US where many offenders are given terms such as no possession of guns, no illegal drugs and being forbidden to associate with known criminals or gang members. A number of high-profile people in the US have had to return to prison for violating terms of their probation.
Three strikes program: In California, a program was introduced where persons who have committed three major felonies are automatically sentenced to a minimum of 25 years or even life on the third offense. I believe people who have fired a weapon or caused physical injury during the commission of a crime should automatically be sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. The carrying of assault weapons should also carry a minimum sentence of 25 years as this type of weapon is solely used for mass murder.
Selective death penalty: I do not believe that the death penalty should be automatic for every murder. There are many different situations involved in a murder and the death penalty should be reserved for specific types of murder; for example, people who murder while committing a robbery or rape, contract killers and senseless violent killers. Cases of murder that come about due to arguments or disputes should be separated as these are not premeditated.
Increase prison capacity and improve conditions: It is quite obvious to many in the field that the number of young people committing crimes is increasing and not decreasing, which means more people will be going to prison. Our prisons are already overcrowded and the conditions below standard. If more people will be going to prison, capacity needs to be increased and living conditions have been overdue for some time. Living conditions should meet minimum requirements such as proper plumbing, no more than two people per cell and other basic amenities common in prisons in the US.
Policing: While I agree with a temporary program of saturation and extended shifts of policemen, I do not believe it is sustainable in the long run and should be considered on a sporadic basis at critical times only in the future.
Strategic plan: Every church body and denomination should prepare a long-term strategic plan that includes increased funding and manpower directed at the youth population. Without this commitment, we will be continuing with rhetoric and little will be accomplished. Since it has been repeatedly shown that most offenders are young men, our plans and funding should be directed at this segment of the population as a priority.
Full-time youth workers: Most churches and denominations have no full-time youth pastor and some of the major denominations in The Bahamas have no full-time youth director. If we are serious about addressing youth issues, it is imperative that churches and especially larger denominations hire and put in place full-time or at the minimum part-time directors and youth pastors to mentor and develop youth.
Conflict resolution and anger management classes/sessions should be incorporated into schools, particularly for students who would have been involved in violence. Some aspects of this are already in place but should be expanded.
Violence and gang prevention: Sessions should be regularly scheduled in schools, churches and youth organizations, using reformed young men and women as examples to younger youth along with professional counselors and ministers.
Funding and incentives: Specific funding and incentives should be given to organizations and entities that are prepared to provide positive alternative programming and activities for youth. There must be positive alternatives available for our youth, otherwise degenerate and criminal programming will be the default of this generation. In addition, all organizations that can prove they are conducting legitimate youth prevention, development and rehabilitation programs should be incorporated into a systemic fund (similar to United Way in the US). From my experience, most organizations that help youth are unfunded and are having to spend much of their time and energies on attracting funds rather than on youth work. In the past 10 years, funding to many youth organizations have been cut by 80 percent.
Recognition of positive youth activities particularly via the media: This can be done through individual organizations and through government media outlets (Bahamas Information Services) as well as private media outlets. Each media house should make it a point to provide recognition to positive youth achievements. All existing media companies should allot time slots for positive programming directed specifically at our youth.
Community-based national youth service: Establish a mandatory national youth service component that is tied to existing youth, community and church organizations that would strengthen these organizations without creating new infrastructure, personnel and budget challenges.
• Pastor Dave Burrows is senior pastor at Bahamas Faith Ministries International. Feel free to email comments, whether you agree or disagree, to firstname.lastname@example.org. I appreciate your input and dialogue. We become better when we discuss, examine and exchange.