In the last 18 months, I have made numerous edits to Wikipedia articles on justice issues in New Zealand. In May 2013, I was banned from further editing – it seems they don’t like my perspective. Since then other editors have deleted many of the contributions I have made to a range of different articles. The following information was deleted from the Wikipedia article about the sensible sentencing trust.
For the last ten years or so, Garth McVicar has been a polarising figure in New Zealand politics. While he is supported by some victims and their families, he has been criticised in the media and lambasted on chat forums. Columnist Richard Boock has pointed out that McVicar’s public statements are often contradictory and wrote: “What McVicar stands for isn’t really clear, but it certainly has nothing to do with justice.” Some commentators doubt that the SST actually helps the victims it claims to support. Justice reformer, Kim Workman, believes that when victims get caught up in the rhetoric of the Sensible Sentencing trust, they…
“become trapped in their grief by the Trust and are unable to ever reach peace. These victims are being fed with this retributive agenda from McVicar and from politicians trying to oust one another to be tough on crime. It’s just alienating and full of hate. It’s not helpful at all.”
Offenders are also victims
The Trust’s call for harsher sentences has been criticised by justice sector professionals on a number of grounds. The first is that there is no clear delineation between victims and offenders. Tony Paine, CEO, Victim Support points out that…
“the social and demographic indicators that identify those who are most likely to be victimized are identical to the markers for those likely to be offenders. The life stories and cultural contexts that weave victims and offenders together (often within the same person) make any artificial separation between offenders and victims just that: an artifice that oversimplifies our complex world.”
The single greatest predictor of youth offending is prior victimisation and thousands of New Zealanders are transformed annually from child victims into young offenders.
Garth McVicar’s willingness to publicly criticise the justice system has led to an increase in the public’s fear of crime and more politicians competing to be “tough on crime” – a process described by criminologists as penal populism. All too often New Zealand journalists have been lured into phoning McVicar for a quote, rather than investigating the latest research in penal policy, or talking to criminologists and justice sector experts, about what actually works. Kim Workman has written:
“The Trust and its spokespeople have become new kinds of experts, whose knowledge is based not on formal learning and research, but on anecdote, common sense and newspaper headlines: a form of expertise that suits the news making requirements of the contemporary media.”
In the process, the media generally ignore researchwhich shows a continuing decline in reported crime rates as well as international perceptions that New Zealand is already regarded as a safe society.
Perversion of justice
Legal theorists argue that the populist goal of a crime free society is a utopian dream. French criminologist, Denis Salas, says societies driven by penal populism develop an insatiable demand for more and more punitive laws in pursuit of a society where there is no risk – and this leads to a “perversion of justice“. Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, has also expressed concerns about tougher sentencing and believes that New Zealand has developed a “pervasive culture of blame” and that more punitive sanctions have not made New Zealand any safer. In her Blameless Babes speech at Victoria University in 2009 she said:
“The responsibility (of the probation service) to manage risk… is conducted against a public unwillingness to accept that risk cannot be eliminated.”
Growing prison population
The “tough on crime” policies advocated by the Trust have contributed to New Zealand’s growing prison population. In December 2011, New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment was 190 inmates per 100,000 of populationgiving the country one of highest rates of imprisonment among western democracies. Prison numbers have increased so rapidly that in the last ten years, the Corrections Department has had to build five new prisons and according to Finance Minister, Bill English, Corrections will soon be the biggest government department in the country. In 2011, Mr English said repeatedly that New Zealand was facing the biggest deficit in its history,that prisons were “a fiscal and moral failure” and we couldn’t afford to build any more.
Ineffectiveness of deterrence
The problem is that longer sentences do not deter criminal offending. In 2001 the Corrections Department released a policy document called About Time quoting the result of 50 international studies involving over 300,000 offenders. It said:
“None of the analyses found imprisonment reduced recidivism… Longer sentences were associated with an increase in offending.”
Longer sentences not only fail to deter offending, such policies are expensive to implement. Each prisoner costs the taxpayer $90,000 per year and Corrections annual budget is over $1 billion a year placing a growing burden on the taxpayer.
In an interview with Time magazine in 2010, criminologist, Professor John Pratt of Victoria University made the point that the more a society spends on their prison system, the less they tend to spend on education, health and social security. At the same time, by focussing solely on increasing prison sentences to bring about a ‘safe’ society, the Sensible Sentencing Trust ignores international evidence that reducing income inequality in New Zealand is what really needs to be addressed. This is supported by an OECD report called “Divided we stand” which points out that since the mid-1980s, the gap between New Zealand’s rich and poor has grown faster than in any other developed country. One can only conclude that there is nothing sensible at all about Garth McVicar and the so-called sensible sentencing trust.