Gleaner Editorial-Time to put justices of the peace to work-May 22, 2021

The following was published in The Gleaner, today.

There is justification in continuing to explore pathways to a safer Jamaica because we believe the future of the nation hinges on how well citizens can be preserved to make their contribution to nation-building.

News reports tell us that many communities are in crisis. Familial structures have broken down, resulting in vicious and sometimes deadly confrontations, caused by feuding among partners, siblings and children.

On top of that, there is the ever-ready supply of guns that it seems children are now holding guns before they are able to hold a book. As a nation, we recognise that we are all affected and must be prepared to collectively confront these difficult issues.

But we need not wring our hands in frustration, for the country has the requisite human resources, if properly directed and monitored, to make a difference in the way people behave in their communities. For example, we believe that a key community resource, not fully exploited, is that of the justice of the peace (JP).

Delroy Chuck, who heads the justice ministry, has recognised that this group has huge potential and has often referred to the critical role JPs can play in the administration of justice. He has been steadily recommending new appointments to increase the cadre of JPs across the island, and has ramped up training through the Justice Training Institute. 

Currently, there are more than 12,000 JPs in the island, and they are no longer restricted to offer service only in the parish in which they were commissioned.

WORKING CLOSER WITH POLICE

If, as the name suggests, justices of the peace are meant to keep peace within a specific community, then they should take on a more active role in mentoring and nurturing community members who are facing difficult times. Indeed, we see the JPs working closer with the police to identify trouble spots, or to offer counselling and comfort where necessary.

To his credit, Mr Chuck has been introducing a number of features to modernise the way JPs are appointed and how they carry out their duties, and these are contained in the Justice of the Peace Act 2018. The role of JPs, for most people, is to certify documents or preside over Petty Sessions (renamed Lay Magistrates’ Court).

JPs are required to do much more, such as visit prisons to ensure prisoners get proper care, as well as children’s homes and homes for the aged. We believe, if these visits were being done as intended, some of the atrocities that have been uncovered in these facilities could have been detected and corrected long before they reached crisis proportions.

In the new dispensation, JPs are supposed to submit an annual report to the custos, which would give a summary of their activities. We applaud this attempt at accountability, for this will help separate the active from inactive.

MENTORSHIP SKILLS

Mentorship and nurturing skills are in great demand in many of our communities, as the role model figures are steadily diminishing. The JPs, who have intimate contact with their communities, should be trained in these skills as well. For a time, appointment of JPs was marred by charges of cronyism and political patronage. These were not persons anxious to serve their community, and it was reflected in how they performed their duties. Also, charges of corruption and demanding pay for work formed dark clouds over some JPs, which caused them to lose some of the community respect they used to enjoy.

We think Mr Chuck has made a good start, but there is so much more to be done. There has to be a weeding out of inactive JPs, those who are morally or ethically corrupt, and the lazy ones. We tend to create new agents for change, instead of refining the ones we already have. We see here an opportunity to build a strong force for community enhancement and, ultimately, a better future for Jamaica.