In September 2017 we travelled to Barbados to conduct a series of impact and public engagement activities as part of our ongoing work on the Caribbean Death Penalty Research project. On Friday 15th September, a day of focus group research and public engagement was scheduled, to be followed by a seminar on the death penalty on Monday 18th. The trip was made possible, and arranged in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and in particular with Michelle Brathwaite, the National Human Rights Officer. The trip afforded the team a fantastic opportunity to meet key stakeholders in the region, such as Michelle, and we also had a chance to meet the Resident Coordinator Stephen O’Malley. All the events were held at UN House, Christ Church.
In addition to the generous hosting offered by the UN, the trip was funded by a HEIF award held by Dr Seal (through the University of Sussex), and a seed funding award to Dr Black (from the College of Social Sciences and Law, University College Dublin).
On Friday morning, we began our day of focus groups. These offered a chance to engage in research on public views on the death penalty, as well as a key means of public engagement on the issue. The focus groups had been promoted in advance through the placement of an online notice in the Barbados Today newspaper. The focus groups were also promoted through the social media site Twitter, and by emails to various academic departments at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, as well as student organisations.
We held two focus groups through the day, involving a total of 25 participants, aged from 19 to 61. Focus groups lasted for approximately 90 minutes and involved a general discussion of crime and punishment, a more concentrated discussion of participants’ views on the death penalty, followed by the discussion of various case studies. In these case studies, participants were read the facts of a hypothetical murder case, and were asked to discuss which sentence was most appropriate – sentences included non-custodial ‘Other’ options, imprisonment for a specified term, a life sentence, or the death sentence.
In both focus groups, when participants were asked which issues were most pressing on the theme of crime in Barbados, a number of topics came up:
- Participants felt that there was a general societal decline, and many compared the problem of crime today with their experience of crime in the past.
- Related to this, participants voiced concerns for the actions of younger people in society. They associated this with a failure of discipline, and increasingly lax attitudes towards children’s behaviour.
- Finally, participants also pointed to the problem of corruption. Throughout the discussions, there was a recurrent reference to leading by example, and participants believed that unethical practices by those in government and business set a bad example for society.
Participants were also vocal about their criticisms of the criminal justice system. A need for stronger penalties was articulated by some, while others stressed the need for a more efficient criminal justice system focusing particularly on the delays in the courts. Participants also voiced the need for greater resources to be devoted to rehabilitation. When participants were asked to select the most appropriate sentences for the selected case studies of murder, the voting on each sentence suggested that there was not strong support for the mandatory death sentence for murder.
The focus groups offered an open and engaged way of discussing issues of crime and punishment in Barbados. As researchers, we gained a lot from the experience, and we particularly enjoyed hearing the plurality of views on the death penalty.
On Monday 18th September, we held a seminar at UN House. We were pleased that the seminar received a significant turn out, especially as the effects of the passing Hurricane Maria could be felt, and storm warnings were in effect throughout the island. The attendees were drawn from various UN agencies, civil society groups such as US Aid, as well as representatives from organisations working in the areas of violence against women, and LGBTQI rights. The seminar was also very well attended by attorneys, who offered an insight into the legal consequences of the mandatory death sentence for murder.
Florence, Lynsey, and Lizzie each presented on an aspect of their work on the death penalty in the Caribbean. Florence outlined the research already carried out with regard to Trinidad and Tobago and reviewed the findings from three studies she had previously carried out in collaboration with Professor Roger Hood and the Death Penalty Project. Lynsey spoke about the current legal status of the death penalty in Barbados, and offered some context on the mandatory death sentence. She also outlined the results of an exploratory online public survey which assessed people’s views on the mandatory death sentence. Finally, Lizzie outlined the preliminary findings from the focus group research that was held on the previous Friday and spoke about the benefits of using focus groups as a means of exploring public opinion.
The Q&A which closed the seminar facilitated a serious debate on the issue of the death penalty in Barbados, and the effect that the mandatory death sentence for murder was having on conviction rates and criminal justice disposals in Barbados’ courts.
Finally, the seminar made it to the front page of the Barbados Advocate in the September 20th issue, and carried a fuller report on the need for further research on page 4. The team were really pleased to reach a wide audience!