Debate on the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organizations) (Amendment) Act, 2021 commonly called the anti-gang legislation, began in the Senate on Friday (June 11).
The amendments specify additional offences for activities in which criminal organisations are engaged, increase the number of offences under the Act, expand the list of aggravating factors to be considered when sentencing an individual convicted of certain offences under the Act, and improve the trial procedure in order to protect the identity of witnesses for connected matters.
Opening the debate on the Bill, Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of National Security, Senator the Hon. Matthew Samuda said the amendments will sufficiently augment the Anti-gang Act, while including appropriate safeguards, to bring it up to its full potential as a legal tool the justice system can employ in the fight against organised crime.
He stated that the specific amendments are designed to address the weaknesses of the principal legislation that led to its underutilisation in the courts.
Senator Samuda said the principal legislation, at Section 21, stipulates that the Act shall be reviewed by a Joint Select Committee (JSC) no later than three years after the date of its commencement.
He noted that the principal legislation is being amended to reflect the recommendations of the JSC and further strengthen the legislation, adding that the Ministry also considered subsequent court judgments related to the 2014 Act, as well as further consultation with key stakeholders involved in operational activities.
“Among the most important considerations throughout this process, is how seldom the principal legislation has been applied in the courts between the time it came into effect and the period of JSC review. Before the JSC commenced, courts only handed down two convictions based on the Anti-Gang Act, as a result of guilty pleas,” he stated.
He said as a general amendment, all references to ‘serious offence’ have been replaced with reference to ‘applicable offence’ pursuant to the recommendation of Joint Select Committee.
He noted that the use of the term ‘applicable offence’ in place of ‘serious offence’ would facilitate the inclusion of offences that may not be classically considered as ‘serious offences’.
“Further to this, the Committee accepted a recommendation to amend the First Schedule of the Act, which is entitled ‘Serious Offences’, to include larceny and receiving stolen property, since criminal gangs are known to engage in these activities as primary criminal enterprises,” he said.
Senator Samuda said the country remains plagued by the activities of organized criminal gangs, noting that statistics from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) reveal that there are 379 gangs present in Jamaica, with 262 considered active. He added that 802 or 61 per cent of murders in 2020 were gang related.
“Many of these murders (in 2020) would have resulted from inter-gang and intra-gang, conflict. To fund themselves these criminal groups also engage in activities that are incredibly detrimental to the wider public and to Jamaica’s development,” he said.
“These activities, as identified by the JCF, include contract killing, extortion, robberies, and drugs and firearms trafficking. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that we not just prosecute these individual offences but target the criminal organizations themselves through legislation,” he added.
The Minister further noted that the Government has had some success in disrupting and halting the activities of criminal gangs in particular hotspots.
The Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organizations) Act, was first passed in 2014. It is so called, because the Act was tailored to undermine criminal organizations by criminalising the participation in and promotion of the activities carried out by such organisations.
The legislation is similar to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute in the US, which has been instrumental in winding up several criminal organizations in that jurisdiction.
The report of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) to review the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organizations) Act, 2014 was adopted in the House of Representatives in May 2020.
Government Senator Charles Sinclair and Opposition Senator, Peter Bunting made contributions to the debate.
The debate was suspended until at a later sitting of the Senate.