Prisons improve public safety – yeah right!

In September, Simon Power announced he wanted to toughen up the bail laws and make it harder for offenders to be granted bail when appearing in Court. He says his proposals will improve public safety. Similar claims were made about the draconian ‘three strikes’ legislation passed by Parliament last year which imposed harsher sentences on repeat offenders.

New Zealand can afford it – no we can’t!

These ‘tough on crime’ laws achieve two very dubious outcomes. The first is they increase the number of people in prison – which imposes a huge burden on the taxpayer. New Zealand already has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the West – exceeded only by the United States. But building new prisons is an expensive strategy. The last Labour Government built four of them at a cost of over $1 billion. The National Government has already built one new prison at Mt Eden for $216 million and is planning yet another at Wiri at twice that cost – even though the lastest justice sector forecasts show we don’t need another prison.

This is a massive waste of money.  Altogether, police, courts and prisons cost the taxpayer about $5 billion a year – the same as the cost of just one Christchurch earthquake – except that this earthquake of crime happens year, after year, after year. When New Zealand is facing the biggest deficit in its history, tough on crime strategies have created a financial black hole from which New Zealand gets very little in return.

Violent crime is on the rise – no it’s not!

The second outcome of tough on crime laws is that they pander to public perceptions (assumptions) that crime is out of control and putting offenders in prison improves public safety. Let’s examine these assumptions.

There is little doubt that the public believes violent crime is on the rise. A Ministry of Justice study in 2003 found that 83% of New Zealanders held inaccurate and negative views about crime levels in society and ‘wrongly believed’ that crime was increasing. A more recent study in 2009 by Dr Michael Rowe, also from Victoria University, found an overwhelming public belief that crime has got worse despite New Zealand’s murder rate dropping by almost half in the past 20 years. The latest figures for 2010 show a further drop in the crime rate. Police spokesman Kevin Kelly said crime had been dropping in New Zealand since 1997.

In other words, despite all the evidence to the contrary, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. The media’s sensational reporting of crime and years of pandering to Garth McVicar are largely responsible for these distorted perceptions.

Prisons improve public safety – no they don’t!

This is all very strange – as from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace – out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 indicators including corruption, violence, crime rates, military spending and access to primary education. Other countries in the top ten include Iceland, Japan, Austria and all five Scandinavian countries.

In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations (out of 169 countries) in terms of ‘human development’ – defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’ based on information about life expectancy, schooling, income and a number of other factors.

The UN report also assessed global perceptions of crime and safety. Between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This means that despite reductions in crime, and despite our international standing as a peaceful country with high levels of human development, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). We’re also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55%) and Lebanon (56%) and African countries such as Angola (53%), Nigeria (51%) and Uganda (51%).

There’s something wrong here. In the United States, where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe. In other words, public perceptions of safety in New Zealand are seriously out of touch with reality. What this means is that the man responsible for passing these ‘tough on crime’ laws – that’s Justice Minister Simon Power – is also out of touch. To put it another way, he’s so driven by political populism, he’s become incapable of objective analysis?

The truth is that Mr Power has a well deserved reputation for knee-jerk responses and ignoring research and evidenced-based reports. The President of the New Zealand Law Society, Jonathan Temm, has been so concerned about what’s happening under Mr Power’s watch that he’s called for a national debate on the criminal justice system

New Zealand a ‘penal curiosity’ – ‘what not to do’!

Given the anti-intellectual manner in which justice and penal policy is currently formulated in this country, perhaps it should be no surprise that the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College in London views New Zealand as a ‘penal curiosity’ – and uses our prison policies as an example of what ‘not to do’.

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