Being smart on crime is tough

Last week, TV reviewer Gordon Brown wrote an extraordinary opinion piece in the Taranaki Daily News  titled Make the criminals pay. He expressed his disagreement with arguments put forward in my critical expose of the New Zealand justice system: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.  The thrust of Flying Blind is that 80% of all crime in New Zealand occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs; and that the best way to reduce reoffending is to provide more intervention in the community rather than locking people up and trying to rehabilitate them in prison at twenty times the cost.

Mr Brown on the other hand claims that “ordinary New Zealanders want to feel safe and the only way for that to happen is to resource the police so they can do the job properly.” He also wants to impose tougher sentences on those who end up in prison.

Community safety

If Mr Brown had bothered to read Flying Blind, he might have picked up on a few facts about community safety. First, crime has been on the decline since the 1990s and the murder rate has halved over this period. The projected need for prison beds has also begun to decline for the first time in 50 years.

Second, for the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the global peace index out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 different indicators including crime rates, violence, corruption, military spending, etc. In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations in terms of human development.

Third, perceptions of community safety have more to do with the media than they do with the police. A study from 2002 into the role of the media’s coverage of crime reported: “the selective and disproportionate media coverage of crime, particularly violence, when set alongside actual police statistics, raises questions of skewed reporting in New Zealand at a time when crime rates are falling.”

Distorted perceptions of safety

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. Between 2006 and 2009 international surveys found that only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This puts us on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon (where 56% feel safe), Iran (55%) and former Communist states like Albania (54%). In the United States where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe.

What this suggests is that we don’t need more police to improve public safety. What we need is more honest journalism and less scaremongering by the likes of Garth McVicar, right wing politicians and commentators like Gordon Brown – who claims to represent the silent majority. Unfortunately, the so-called silent majority has not been silent at all. They’ve been very vocal; this uninformed, lock ‘em up brigade has dominated public debate about justice issues for the last 20 years – leading to a populist competition between National and Labour to be tough on crime.

Where has this competition to be tough on crime got us? The answer is – into a financial black hole. The last Labour Government built four new prisons. National has already built one new prison and is planning another. Justice Sector costs are estimated at around $5 billion a year. This is equivalent to the cost of one decent sized earthquake in Christchurch – but it’s not a one off. Criminal liquefaction shakes the foundations of society year, after year, after year. Mr Brown wants to ‘make the criminals pay’. But this $5 billion cost is imposed on the New Zealand taxpayer – not the criminals.

One has to wonder why people like Garth McVicar and Gordon Brown are so keen to drive the New Zealand justice system into this financial black hole. The answer to that question was provided in Mr Brown’s opinion piece. He wrote: “We (just) don’t care”.  The fact that so many New Zealanders don’t seem to care is why the justice system is Flying Blind.

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