Gordon Campbell on National’s law and ordure policy

0131720e35a769496c26So here we are… Barely 75 days out from election day, and National STILL hasn’t revealed how it is going to pay for its stupendously expensive bag of presents for everyone. National is simultaneously promising to reduce the tax revenue coming into the state coffers, increase the spending going out of those coffers into key areas like health, education, roading and other infrastructure and oh… Deliver tax cuts and pay down government debt.

How is that combo possible? It isn’t. And that’s ironic, given that National is also claiming to be the party of fiscal responsibility that knows how to manage a modern economy. Plainly, it hasn’t got a clue. It can’t fund even half of its agenda without making massive cuts to public services. Or borrowing a mint. Buyer, beware. After all, this is the same National Party that when last in government – between 2008 and 2017 – systematically ran down the health system.

Law and order

On the weekend, Natonal unveiled its law and order policy. Criminals will receive tougher, longer sentences. The discretion of judges to reduce sentences will be reduced; the cultural reports now available to assist judges by better informing their sentencing decisions will be scrapped; a variant of the punitive Three Strikes policy will be re-introduced. Oh, and a full “suite” of rehabilitation measures will be made available to all offenders, even those on remand.

Has National got the remotest idea how much all of this would cost? No. At last weekend’s party conference, the media asked shadow Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith, party leader Christopher Luxon and Corrections spokesperson Mark Mitchell what it currently costs the taxpayer, annually, to keep someone in prison.

“$100,000,” Goldsmith crisply replied, and Luxon agreed. “$193,000,” the reporter accurately responded. Luxon and Goldsmith didn’t blink at being told their guesstimate was wrong by almost half the actual cost. “You’ll find out the cost,” Mitchell intervened belligerently, “after this guy is Prime Minister, and when we’re in government.” In a nutshell this is National’s approach to accountability: you deserve to find out only after we’re in power. Watch the exchange with Luxon, Goldsmith and Mitchell towards the end of this TV3 video news clip. The mix of arrogance and incompetence is stunning to behold.

Prisons of convenience

While still in government, a former National Party leader – Sir Bill English – described prison as a ‘moral and fiscal failure.” We’re not soft on crime. Corrections’ own figures indicate that New Zealand has one of the higher rates of imprisonment in the developed world. New Zealand is also regularly rated as being the second safest place on earth, behind Iceland.

If enacted, National’s law and order policy would increase the population of a prison system that’s already over-crowded and significantly under-staffed. (There’s a reason for those television advertisements that Corrections have been running recently, to try and attract staff.) Presumably, National will have to build more prisons (at vast expense) to house the prisoner influx that its policies would generate.

National’s alleged crackdown on gangs will actually generate more recuits.That’s because while inside, more inmates will be likely to gravitate to gangs for their own protection, before they re-emerge into the community as more hardened ex-criminals with few job prospects, and with little option but to revert to criminal behaviors to survive. The rich – including the politicians advocating these “tough” policies- will be OK. They can afford to live in gated communities, but the rest of us will be prey to the worsening outcomes. Bill English, at least, could see the social fallacy of the “tough on crime” cycle – and that’s why he called it out as a ruinously expensive moral failure.

To date, none of this has been acknowledged by National, which is intent on reaping political gain out of pandering to the fears that are now rife in the community. As mentioned, Luxon is promising that a full suite of rehabilitation programmes will be made available to every prisoner, including those on remand. Really? Think about it. This would entail full funding for trauma counselling, mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, literacy and numeracy courses, skills training, and job placement subsidies to encourage employers to take a chance on hiring former criminals upon their release.

These are all worthy ideas. Yet to be done properly,the cost would be astronomical. At the same time, National is also promising to pour more money into victim support. Once again, National has given no indication of even a ballpark figure of the costs this would involve, and how it could possibly fund its promises.

Section 27 Cultural Reports

As for the much-derided cultural reports… What are they? After an offender has been convicted, their defence lawyer can ask for a cultural report to be written, to better inform the judge about what events in the offender’s life may have contributed to the offending, what level of remorse they have, what readiness they have to engage in restorative justice and in counselling or addiction treatment, if that’s relevant. Crucially, the reports cite what resources, if any, the offender has amongst their family and in the community, to support their own efforts at rehabilitation.

Where possible, corroboration is sought from others about the offender’s version of events. Some cultural reports also include research findings on what social and personal outcomes commonly result from prior (ie, childhood) sexual and physical abuse and from, say, a family history of addiction and poverty. The reports are not advocacy. They do not attempt to re-litigate the verdict or make an argument for exoneration.

Instead, they are intended to provide the sentencing judge with a clearer picture of an offender who – sometimes for the first time ever– has been able to talk about their life, and what help they feel they will need when, inevitably, they get released back into the community. National’s sop – a brief oral statement by a family member delivered in what can be an alien court setting – is no substitute for what an extensive interview can elicit, and what research findings can provide to the sentencing judge.

No doubt, cultural reports will differ in quality, around the country. So does the work of the lawyers funded by legal aid. That’s not a reason for abolishing legal aid. Before deciding to demolish the cultural report system altogether, has National bothered to engage with the judiciary and/or with the legal profession about the value that they place on cultural reports? This doesn’t appear to have happened. Instead, National has, for its own political advantage, unilaterally decided to limit the information available to judges, and restrict their discretion when it comes to sentencing.

BTW, lawyers, judges and (dare one say it) politicians – are also part of their own “cottage industries” within the justice system. All of them get paid and derive profit from what they do. The fact that people get paid to produce what is arguably a social good is not a reason to shut them down entirely. Surely, we should be debating the purpose of cultural reports and weighing value against cost. If a significant variance in quality exists within the fledgling system of section 27 reports – we should perhaps be asking how the quality can be standardised, and improved.

Finally, and with respect to victims of crime…. Why is National treating this as such a zero sum game? Providing better support for victims and providing a better system of rehabilitating offenders are both necessary aspects of the justice system. Yet National is treating one of these processes as being at the expense of the other. It isn’t. In any case, any money that’s saved by scrapping cultural reports is unlikely to be passed on to the victims of crime. It is far more likely to be squandered on tax cuts.

Footnote: Dream of anything – anything at all – that you’d like to see happen in New Zealand and chances are that National will have promised to deliver it to you, if only you vote for them on October 14. Tax cuts? Sure. Tougher sentences for criminals? Sure, whatever that costs. More spending on infrastructure? Sure. More spending on health, education, roads, the police? Absolutely. More money for Defence? Of course.

But to repeat… On top of all those increases in spending, National is also promising to cut government spending, and to pay down government debt. All of our Chrsitmasses at once, in other words. Yet the only turkeys voting for an early Christmas on October 14, will be the people willing to close their eyes to reality, and vote National.

Footnote Two: National’s law and order package will still let judges retain a degree of discretion – provided that any sentence mitigated on the basis of prior negative life experiences does not exceed a 40% discount on the recommended sentence. But here’s the thing. In how many cases annually, do judges treat the offender’s life history as a rationale for reduced sentence beyond a 40% discount? In other words, what’s the extent of the problem that Luxn is claiming to fix?

Even if Luxon or Paul Goldsmith knew the extent of the allegedly lenient judicial sentencing that goes beyond the 40% level – which I’d wager they don’t – how can National know that it was the cultural report that was the reason for the bulk of the discount that the sentencing judge, who had heard all the evidence, saw fit to deliver?

Usually, National decries the notion that Big Government knows best. Yet in the courtroom, it is loudly proclaiming that the government knows better than judges how the scales of justice should be balanced.