The Real Three Strikes: Mad, Sad and Bad

Using common sense would be a welcome change for our criminal justice system …

by Denis O’Reilly

When Rufus Marsh, a poster boy for the promoters of the 3 Strikes legislation, died earlier this month there was no tangi at his papakainga, Mangaroa Marae. The first I knew of his passing was a story in the Dominion Post. I’m told that he had been cremated on his mum’s instructions. For all we know his ashes may well have been discarded like detritus, an unambiguous statement as to the considered value of his life.

If there were tears of mourning it was equally likely that they would have been for Rufus’ victims, Taffy Williamson and Dianne Miller. Taffy was an ‘old school’ Wellington drunk, an angry and irascible codger, an alcoholic who lived in an abandoned Ministry of Works house in Hopper St alongside a similar pad squatted by a group of young Black Power. It was 1974. Rufus could only have been 18 and he was living it rough, part of a wave of young unskilled rural Maori heading to the city and struggling to find a place in a rapidly changing society. Taffy, staggering past, called Rufus and his mate ‘black cunts’ and the two attacked him, basically kicking him to death, and then dragging his body down the road and hiding him under a pile of pallets.

During his lag it became apparent that Rufus had major mental health issues. He was a tragic figure – illiterate, lonely, troubled by demons. In 1986, after twelve years of enclosed madness, without any real habilitative support, our criminal justice system released Rufus back onto the streets of Wellington. He couldn’t cope, and it was apparent to any independent observer who cared to think about it that he was a danger to himself and others. His life sentence had done little but twist his already troubled mind.

Somehow all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t see the blooming obvious. For his own good and for the safety of others on the streets of Wellington this confused man needed to be held still, yet treated with compassion and shown some love and humanity based in the belief in his potential to heal. That can’t happen in a prison. The brother Skull tried to help him, to be a mate and to enable him to access housing and to get the thing most vital of all, a job. He wasn’t an easy candidate to place, and, Skull, big hearted as usual, took him on into his own business, ‘Shift a Flat’, where he could be directly supervised and earn a decent and legitimate dollar.

It was a move that had unanticipated and tragic consequences. One client was a young woman, Dianne Miller, a nurse if I recall, who wanted to be shifted into a flat in Mt Victoria. The job was done. But, Rufus the predator came back to Dianne’s flat and murdered her, assaulting her horribly in the process. And so back into prison he went, eventually to die and be discarded. Mad, bad, and sad. Rufus Marsh didn’t even need three strikes. He needed a system based on common sense and the provision of community support.

The National/Act three strikes legislation has been introduced in the quest for safer streets. If it will achieve that is moot. We are radically changing the dynamics at the hardest edge of the criminal justice system – the prisons. This 3 Strikes initiative will consolidate a difficult-to-manage cohort within the prison system. We are likely to see the development of units based on North American super max style prisons, domains of hopelessness and despair.

This administration’s push towards privatization of prisons can be interpreted as a market response to a system that now ensures that there will be a body of inmates who never get out. Moreover, what are the fresh sanctions that can be applied against someone who is already a perpetual prisoner? What do we do when they kill, or try to kill, whilst in prison? Look at Graham Burton’s recent conviction.

On the current policy trajectory this sort of behavior – which we are going to see more and more – is likely to become a platform for an argument for the re-introduction of the death penalty. In any case 3 Strikes is with us. It is the latest move in a decade of ‘getting tough on crime’ initiatives undertaken by successive governments in response to the populist demands of an aging white Pakeha populace waiting out their twilight in talkback zone. They’re scared of the young brown poor who might thieve from their houses.

Hell, they should be more scared of the white-shirted rich financiers who will steal the actual house. God give us the day when we have 3 Strikes for crooked banksters! In my view there has been more than enough of criminal justice whoop- ass aimed at Aotearoa’s young brown poor. We should reflect on the words of Winston Churchill (he was hardly a cardie tugging liberal)

“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused and even of the convicted criminal against the State; a constant heart searching by all charged with the duty of punishment; a desire and an eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry, those who have paid their due in the hard coinage of punishment; tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerative processes; unfailing faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every man; these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminal mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation and are sign and proof of the living virtue in it”.

How do we now balance up the scales and meet our social justice obligations by putting equal effort and resource into what Justice Minister Simon Power currently refers to as the ‘drivers of crime’. The current administration has consulted widely and come up with ideas about what to do, and even how to do it, but they’ve made available sweet fanny adams in terms of fresh resource, nada, zilch. Well, to quote Rutherford, ‘then we must think’. And, if we are to think, let it be beyond the self serving tick box interests of current policy conventions emanating from the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Justice, and the other beneficiaries of the criminal justice industrial complex.

The ‘outside the box’ feedback to the Government from a broad consultative hui convened by Ministers Power and Sharples and held at Parliament suggested that the drivers of crime are complex, social, inter-generational, and require early intervention. The full report can be read here, but it can be summarised as:

Parenting and family
Underlying issues stemming from family dysfunction were a significant part of the discussion in all groups at the ministerial meeting. Poor parenting and child maltreatment were discussed as problems that are being transferred between generations, and are coupled with poverty and low educational attainment.

Community and identity
Several issues relating to community and identity were identified. Alongside parenting and family issues, the community environment was identified by all groups as contributing to crime. Specific reference was made to a deterioration of community values and support structures, and alienation from community and wider society as wider issues.

Schooling, education
While a range of concerns were identified, education was seen as a solution to many problems.

Alcohol and drugs
Alcohol was discussed by most groups at the meeting as a contributor or ‘facilitator’ of crime rather than a driver. Alcohol was seen to amplify negative issues in family and community environments.

Mental health
Mental health problems were seen to exacerbate already identified risk factors.

Behavioural problems and conduct disorder
Many participants identified behavioural problems in childhood as a warning sign for later criminal offending. These problems can also contribute to family stress and poor educational participation and achievement by children and young people.

Justice system factors
Many groups identified the need for a philosophical shift in the justice system, from a retributive or punitive model to a restorative, rehabilitative community-based model. There was discussion about the extent to which the police, courts, prisons and youth justice facilities perpetuate offending and re-offending. Particular issues identified included the criminalization of low-level offenders, and the lack of interventions to reduce recidivism.

Whoa! What! A philosophical shift! A fence at the cliff top! What a radical proposition. By the time these suggestions had been filtered through the policy mill the respective Ministers Power and Sharples were prepared to announce ‘whole of government’ priorities on four priority areas:

  • Antenatal, maternity, and early parenting support.
  • Programmes to address behavioural problems in young children.
  • Reducing the harm caused by alcohol.
  • Alternative approaches to managing low-level offenders, and offering pathways out of offending.
  • Apparently the focus across these areas will be on improving services for those at risk of being the offenders or victims of the future, and their families. The MSD Social Report suggests that in both instances they’ll disproportionately be Maori New Zealanders. Power says that addressing the drivers of crime for Maori will be a priority in all aspects of the work. That makes sense.

    In my view, based on Peter Doone’s research, the biggest contribution that could be made might well be to challenge and resolve the issue experienced by Maori at their first encounter with the criminal justice system. This is the systemic racism embedded within the New Zealand Police. The ‘whole of government aspect’ is premised on the assumption that the answers will come from sectors such as health, education, parenting support, housing, recreation, and economic, social and community development.

    Black Power Gang Members, Herd Street, Wellington
    (Image: Ans Westra, 1973)

    But, despite the fact that the stubs of the nation’s chequebook reveal our true priorities, as I’ve noted, there’s no fresh bucks. We’re prepared to spend whatever it costs to crush and crate when it comes to crime, but when it comes to prevention we will rely on synergies leveraged from the fiefdoms of the public service. Power said “The focus will be on improving outcomes by tackling fragmentation, ensuring ministerial and chief executive co-ordination and leadership of the work programme, improving value for money, and improving the relationship between government and the community.” Tui Billboard!

    It’s hard getting a ‘whole of government’ service at a community level. I will share parables based on my own recent experience. I drive a national movement that aims to engage the leadership of the two major Maori gangs (the Mob and Blacks) in a movement to self-prohibit the manufacture, distribution, and use of methamphetamine. It’s not a universally popular mission and from time to time I get criticism and opposition from within.

    I get criticism from without too – often from the operational arm of the Police and from their union – so if I’m copping it from both flanks I’m probably right on the button. Recently a member of my extended whanau – who I’ve supported for some thirty years – went on a hikoi and came back fried up on meth. He had a few messages for me, probably given when he was sharing a pipe with my detractors. These were delivered in the main through texting.

    As he was tweaking he began to tumble into bouts of psychosis and experience anhedonia – a state where you can turn on those who may well love you most. He became increasingly angry, sad, and his threats moved to those of self harm and murderous intent, with me being the intended victim. I’m no Taffy and I accept that my whanaunga is in a state somewhat similar to Rufus. He can be a dangerous man and the situation was unpredictable.

    I decided to call in the mental health professionals. I hold a Masters degree in social practice and lead a national MOH project. You’d think I might be able to get a bit of traction, a whole-of-government response to an issue that has been ‘owned’ by no less than the Prime Minister. I went to the Hawke’s Bay DHB and tried to get action. I told them I had a whanau member who was threatening to do himself harm and or to do me harm. I believed he was experiencing methamphetamine psychosis. I had the texts to back up my assessment.

    Call the Police they said. No, I don’t want to prosecute my whanau member, I want to get him help. If the helpers needed the Police, fair enough, probably not a bad idea in the circumstances, but I’m not the bloke who comes with the Police. It seemed little could be done until he had actually attacked me or attempted to kill himself. I have a loving family. My three sons were anxious for my safety. The son who was closest to the whanau member went to see him. The whanau member came out of his whare armed with knives and stabbed my boy. My other two sons heard the attack – we live nearby – and came to the rescue. A fracas ensued and it spilled out onto a main road. The Police were called by passers-by.

    Stuff the context, the Police arrested my three sons (Maoris fighting on the street – dad’s a gang member don’t you know). All three boys are family men in steady relationships, well employed, and one is a recently graduated lawyer, who, like me, runs a programme designed to combat meth. Where’s the commonsense in this policing?

    I mentioned Graham Burton earlier on. My friends in Wellington tell me that, like Rufus Marsh (pictured left), Burton was pretty lost when he was released from jail. He wanted to do good, and wanted help. It was unavailable in any meaningful way. Its apparent that the man wasn’t psychologically well. Although the Probation Service have copped the blame that fact of the matter was that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Maybe the Police were too scared to go arrest him – “We tried Sarge but no one was home; leave it to the next shift”. Maybe the CIB were happy to have him out taxing and terrorising the meth dealers.

    He was dangerous but nothing was done. Look at the tragedy that ensued. Where’s the commonsense? Just this week a local Hawke’s Bay bloke Bruce Ngaranoa has pleaded guilty to a raft of charges stemming from his violence. He’d been deported from Australia where he famously climbed onto the roof of a prison to complain about the conditions. If you don’t like it fuck off back to New Zealand they said, and gave him a free ticket home. Here, it was obvious he was unwell. He’d stand in the middle of the road in a traffic island and stare at the traffic, eyeballing drivers in a most threatening way.

    Brucie is a big strong bloke. I’ve known him since he was a kid. His mum and dad and family members are wonderful people, but apart from continuing to love their obviously stressed son and brother they could do little to change the situation. He is mad, and maybe to some degree bad, but I’m sure the former predicates the latter. It had to wait until he had stacked up a number of serious criminal charges, all of them related to violence and intimidation before ‘whole-of-government’ would act. Three strikes indeed. Just give me some bloody common sense.