Wed | Feb 26, 2020

John Mahfood | Theft of electricity and its impact on crime and violence in Jamaica

Published:Wednesday | February 12, 2020 | 12:08 AMJohn Mahfood/Guest Columnist

There is no shortage of discussion on the issue of crime and violence in Jamaica and the possible causes and cures.

For certain, there are many causes, and many possible actions to be taken to combat it, but there has been no clear plan of action that either political party has put forward as their vision and plan to combat it.

Some people misunderstand what is meant by plan of action and they fear that if the authorities publish it, then it will inform the criminals so that they can take advantage of the information. A detailed plan of action is a broad plan that speaks to the required funding for the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the source of the funds, infrastructure and equipment for the police, the numbers of officers needed, training, changes in the laws, technology, size of prisons needed, types of social intervention, time frame for action, etc. It has to do with building and equipping a security system that can protect the people of Jamaica, which is the fundamental responsibility of the Government.

It has nothing to do with detailed operational plans, as that is the responsibility of the police force.

I think that we understand that the issue is a very difficult one in Jamaica because of the general poverty, corruption in general, lawlessness, lack of education, lack of family values, political tribalism, etc.

The problems are so serious and extensive that we cannot agree on where to start in order to develop a comprehensive plan of action.

What we do know is that we have a wonderful country with wonderful people, but yet we are among the poorest in the world on a per capita basis. It is a terrible shame that a country such as ours, with all its beauty and natural talent, has not fulfilled its potential and has not been able to take care of its people.

COST OF CRIME

Our leaders, be they politicians or business persons, need to make the connection between crime and violence and the poverty that we experience. No one seems to dispute the fact that crime and violence costs us five per cent of our gross domestic product per year, and that this has been going on for 50 years. The cost of violence is determined by taking into account a number of factors, including the cost of medical care for the injured persons, the additional cost of security to individuals and businesses, the lost time of employees due crime, the loss of investment opportunities because business people, including foreigners, will not invest in our country, the loss of business in the tourism sector, either because tourists are afraid to travel to Jamaica or because they are afraid to leave their hotels and spend their money with small shops and restaurants, etc.

These costs are tabulated and valued, and in our case comes to about five per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) or about $90 billion per year. This is about the same as the total budget allocation for the Ministry of National Security.

But yet our business and political leaders do not make the direct connection between crime and violence and the effect on the country, and consequently insulate themselves from the reality while the poor continue to suffer.

I have written in the past that issues such as poverty and lack of education are not the cause of violence. I have stated that there are many countries that experience these problems but do not have the level of violence that we have.

Possibly, the difference is that in addition to problems such as poverty and lack of education, etc., our violence has been tied closely to political tribalism and was supported by our leaders for many years.

While the direct connection between criminals and politicians are not the same as it was in the past, political tribalism still exists and creates distrust between communities and the government of the day.

Lawlessness, corruption and violence are now a part of the fabric of Jamaica and it will take a massive effort to bring it under control.

Our leaders have not had the guts to tackle the problem both in the past and now.

ELECTRICITY THEFT

Take the issue of theft of electricity. We are told by the Jamaica Public Service (JPS) that it represents a loss of 20 per cent of the electricity that is generated, and possibly 200,000 households are involved.

If, for argument sake, we assume that there are three persons per household, that means that 600,000 persons are associated with the theft of electricity every day. That represents one in five persons in Jamaica that is either committing a criminal offence every day or is associated with persons in their household that are.

That has been going on for many years and is ingrained in our psyche that it is a fact of life that we have to live with. It is an impossible situation to fix, right?

If JPS turned off the electricity to an inner-city community because the vast majority of the households were stealing electricity, then all hell would break lose. In particular, the member of parliament that represents the community would raise hell and would not allow it to happen!

The police cannot do anything about it because of both political influence and the absolute lack of facilities in which to incarcerate the criminals involved.

Other persons will make excuses for the crime and say that it is because of poverty that we have the problem, or they will say that both rich persons and businessmen do it and don’t get imprisoned if they are caught.

You can sympathise with those arguments, because it is true. It goes to the unfairness of our society that we deal with poor people differently than those with influence.

IMPACT OF CRIME

However, I ask myself, what is the impact on Jamaica if one in five persons commit a serious crime every day?

* How do they feel about themselves knowing that they are doing something wrong every day?

* How do they instill proper values in their children when their children know that their parents steal electricity?

* How do they feel about the society in general when they may believe that they have no other choice but to steal electricity?

* How do they feel about themselves in the eyes of their community if JPS comes in with the police and disconnects their illegal connection and takes them in?

* Are they really interested in making their community safe by ridding the streets of wrong doers by reporting what they know to the police? This would allow the police to patrol freely in their community.

Most people outside the inner city may think that would be a good thing to remove the free movement of gangs in their community. But is it really in their interest, because although their families may be under threat from the gangs in their community, the alternative to the gangs would be to expose themselves to the police who may either lock them up or victimize them for stealing electricity.

I am not suggesting that persons like dons, but they serve a purpose in the community by keeping out other criminals and, by extension, the police as well.

I believe that this is one of the most important issues that face us as a society but which is totally ignored.

The Government should commission a serious study on the subject and determine the impact on our general way of thinking about ourselves and the impact of this on crime in general.

I do not think that I need to see the results of a study to understand the impact on Jamaica of eliminating this massive crime.

Think about it. If 600,000 people in Jamaica were freed from the burden of having this crime hanging over their heads every day; what impact would this have on their way of thinking about themselves and society as a whole?

I think that it would have a huge impact in a very positive way.

IMPORTANT REASONS

JPS has had to deal with the problem for a number of years but has not made much headway. Their lack of success is due to a few important reasons:

1) First and most importantly, they pass the cost unto us the consumers, so they are financially insulated from the problem.

2) They do not have the man power to tackle the problem.

3) They are afraid of the political consequences that would follow, given that they are a foreign company that is making a very good return on their investment.

4) While they disconnect illegal connections, they are reconnected a short while later.

They have made some attempts at solving the problem, including installing meters that allow you to pay as you use electricity. I was exposed to this method when I lived in the United Kingdom many years ago, but it was used for gas in the house that was used for cooking and heating. It was not used for electricity and the worst that would happen if you ran out of coins for the meter was that you had to have a cold bath.

It does not work for electricity because if you run out of money to feed the meter, then all your food that is stored in the refrigerator would spoil.

Most importantly, it does not solve the problem that the poor cannot afford the current high cost of electricity.

RECOMMENDATION

My recommendation is that JPS creates either a means test whereby persons are charged a subsidized rate based on their level of income. So, say for argument sake, that the household makes only $10,000 per week, then they are charged only $3-4,000 per month for electricity and the amount that they are charged goes up based on their level of income. This would also be predicated on the fact that they use a minimum level of electricity that would support their basic needs, that is, no air condition, etc.

National Water Commission (NWC) has recently introduced a tiered rate that is based on consumption, with the lowest rate per 1,000 gallons for the lowest usage and which rate increases as usage increases.

This method could also be used for purposes of electricity consumption and billing and would encourage conservation. This may be the easiest method to utilize.

Some in the society may object to officially subsidising the poor, but in fact we are subsidising the poor now, just not officially.

If one of these methods were utilised with a massive publicity campaign and incorporated over three to five years, I believe that we would have a big buy-in by the poor.

I believe that persons want to pay, provided that the amount charged is affordable. We would then be justified to bring the weight of the law on persons that continue to steal electricity. And I mean both rich and poor alike!

I believe that if we were successful in introducing this concept to the public at large, then it would go a long way towards achieving our goal of fighting corruption and crime. The other significant benefit would be the financial contribution that this would make towards the cost to the law abiding citizens who have to pay for this loss by way of increased electricity costs.

I am not suggesting in any way that this would be a fix to our crime problem but it would be a very important element in tackling one of the enabling factors.

Maybe after we fix this problem we could develop another plan of action for another big problem, which is crime on the roads which is unrestrained and also contributes to our general lawlessness in the society!

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