Open letter to Gerry Brownlee – and his little piece of Finland

Dear Gerry,

Thank you for comparing New Zealand to Finland and bringing these remarkable differences between our two countries into the open.  Professor John Pratt, a criminologist at Victoria University has been making similar comparisons for years – but no one seems to listen. That’s a shame because Prof Pratt is recognised by those in his field as a world authority on the subject.

What’s more, Prof Pratt actually knows what he’s talking about.  He’s been to Finland, undertaken extensive research and written numerous articles and books on the subject – so if you want to make another speech about Finland, perhaps he could help you out.

Here’s something Prof Pratt could tell you.

In 1950, the Finns had an imprisonment rate of 187 inmates per 100,000 of population. New Zealand’s rate in 1950 was less than a third of that – at 56 inmates per 100,000.  In the latter half of the 20th century, the Finns became concerned that they were out of line with their more civilised Scandinavian neighbours, which had low rates of imprisonment. This led to dramatic changes in penal policy, as a result of which the number of people in prison slowly began to drop.  By 2001, the rate was down to only 40 people per 100,000 – an extraordinary reduction of 78% in the prison population.

During the same 50 years, New Zealandwent in the opposite direction. In 2001, instead of being three times less, our rate of imprisonment was three times higher than Finland’s – at 150 inmates per 100,000.  Since then, the New Zealand rate has continued to grow and in November 2011, the figure was at an all-time high of 199 per 100,000.  During this time we’ve had to build five new prisons – and even put prisoners into shipping containers.

How did the Finns manage to reduce their prison population?  Commenting on the Finns’ success, Prof Pratt wrote:

“Key people in that society – people who actually knew something about penal policy and the consequences of imprisonment: academics, judges and senior civil servants – felt that the high prison population was shameful”.

In New Zealand, the media (and the politicians) mostly seem to consult Garth McVicar – a self-proclaimed cow cocky from Napier with no qualifications in psychology, sociology, criminology or anything else remotely connected with penal policy.  No wonder our prisons are overflowing and your government is going to build another one at Wiri – with $900 million of our money.

Ironically, your Government has also announced a reduction in reoffending as one of its ten key goals. If you’re serious about that – go to Finland and see for yourself.  Anne Tolley went – and now she’s the Minister of Corrections.  The two of you could compare notes.  And another thing – Finland has the most comprehensive victim compensation system in the world.  You could take Garth McVicar with you. He might learn something about helping victims instead of spouting off about locking up more and more people.

So my advice, Gerry, is give Prof Pratt a call on your Nokia – on your little bit of Finland. You might learn something about how to reduce reoffending, help victims and save the country billions in prison costs.

Garth McVicar clones himself as a woman

The attack on the five year old Belgian girl on holiday with her family at the Habitat Club in Turangi is hard to fathom. Friends of the 16 year old who admitted raping the young girl describe him as a ‘nice guy’ and are struggling to believe he would do such a thing.  His mother also felt that her son was not the monster he had been portrayed by the media.

Despite the general disbelief that this ‘nice guy’ could do such a thing, angry locals abused his family and threw things at their home. According to the NZ Herald, the attack also stirred a young Auckland woman to call for harsher sentences for violent offenders. Tamsin Marshall started an online petition to introduce cumulative sentences for serious offenders.

She was quoted as saying: “When it happened, I was horrified – I actually lay in bed imagining it was my little girl. I’ve been reading the papers for years and have watched the increase in violent crimes and being horrified … and this case was the point where enough is enough, something has to be done.”

Garth McVicar’s clone

Ms Tamsin sounds like a  clone of Garth McVicar of the so-called sensible sentencing trust. McVicar has been banging on about the increase in violent crime and lobbying for cumulative sentences for some time. The problem is that Garth McVicar is  truely misinformed – there is no increase in violent crime. Over the last 20 years the murder rate has dropped by nearly 50% and crime rates in general are down.

And yet 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.

Global perceptions of safety

As a result of these inaccurate beliefs, a United Nations report assessing global perceptions of crime and safety found that between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’.  This means that 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.

Sensationalist reporting in the media

It’s the media and their obsession with violent crime and Garth McVicar, which is largely to blame for this. A 2002 study 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 NZ (and elsewhere) at a time when crime rates are falling”.

When respondents to these surveys were asked where they get their information about crime, they said ‘from the media’. When journalists are asked the same question, they openly admit they rely on Garth McVicar. In April 2010, TVNZ broadcast a Media 7 interview by Russell Brown about Mr McVicar’s extraordinary access to the media. In his introduction, Mr Brown said:

“In the past nine years, journalists have been really lucky. Every time they’ve needed someone to tell them that their justice system is failing… they’ve been able to rely on just one man…Garth McVicar, a cocky from Hawkes Bay.”

The last thing New Zealand needs is a female clone of Garth McVicar. What it needs is less sensational reporting of crime in the media.