Gordon Campbell on the crackdown on gangs

5bcd1ad7b23d24da92d5For much of last week, Opotiki was like the setting of a Wes Anderson movie. Gruff, no nonsense cops. Bikers who looked just as tough, but who ended up being considerably more peaceful than a similar-sized rugby crowd. Stoic, sensible locals who couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

Simultaneously, and against this backdrop of Opotikians going about their daily business, a near-hysterical gaggle of reporters armed with cameras and microphones, kept on insisting that Opotiki was a barely-corked hellscape boiling with fear and tension.

No matter what the locals said to the contrary, and in the absence of any visible violence…. Nothing seemed able to shift the media narrative that the town was sweltering in a climate of invisible trepidation in which bad things were about to happen, if not just yet but hopefully before deadline. As mentioned, Wes Anderson would have had a field day with such golden material: the banality of everyday routine, underpinned by a yearning in some quarters for flame-lit extremities of criminal passion.

Lock’ em up

More seriously, the National Party used the non-events in Opotiki as a launching pad for a gangs policy unblushingly bereft of any supportive evidence. The key ingredient in National’s gangs policy is a requirement that judges should be forced to treat gang membership as an aggravating factor in sentencing anyone convicted of any crime whatsoever, regardless of whether the gang affiliation bore any relevance to the offence.

Among all its other drawbacks, this policy seemed redundant. Already, judges can and do consider the offender’s membership of an organised criminal gang when deciding on an appropriate sentence. The only innovation is that, as mentioned, National is proposing to punish gang membership even when this bears no relevance whatsoever to the offence. This would be exactly like requiring longer jail sentences for any middle–aged white men in a suit who comes before the court, simply because most tax evasion crimes are committed by middle-aged white men in suits.

In fact, there is no evidence – or rational logic – behind the assumption that issuing longer sentences to gang members for crimes unrelated to gang membership would actually reduce the levels of gang membership.

Meanwhile, the core issue– why do people join gangs? – is being ignored by both major parties. On all the available evidence, a lot of gang members grew up in a climate of poverty, neglect, violence, physical and sexual abuse, and parental drug and alcohol addiction. As children, some had un-diagnosed dyslexia and ADHD disorders.

Initially at least, the gangs served as a surrogate family, offering protection and emotional support. Ultimately, some members have come to realise that the gang hierarchy is just another exploitative, coercive element in their lives. It’s not a life that many want for their kids.

The deprivations do not justify a life of crime, but they do make it more understandable. It means that no credible political party should be able to offer a “gangs policy” that does not include a realistic alternative to gang membership, and a strategy for the rehabilitation of gang members trying to exit the lifestyle.

To take one small example: Facial tattoos have long been a way of expressing gang commitment. Many gang members get them while they’re still young, and many later come to regret getting them. That’s mainly because gang facial tattoos are such a barrier to getting a job, and to escaping from the gang lifestyle.

Yet…. Is any political party offering to increase the funding and availability of a nationwide programme to remove gang facial tattoos? If politicians truly want to reduce gang numbers, why don’t they pour money into this very practical means of helping gang members to escape into paid employment?

Failing, Again

National’s plan to force judges to issue longer sentences, regardless, will be socially corrosive. “Lock ‘em up” may satisfy the atavistic desire for a revenge that goes beyond the normal range of sentencing options. Yet the social and economic costs of imprisonment are ruinously expensive for the taxpayers who will be footing the bill.

New Zealand is not soft on crime. It has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the developed world. Yet somehow, our politicians have arrived at a point where not sending people to prison is seen to be a bad thing. As we all know however, prison is a breeding ground for criminals. The country’s recent 30% reduction in incarceration rates has been an attempt to find a rational alternative to locking people up.

To that end, the vast majority of those released have not been the violent offenders that (understandably) scare the public. Instead, those being released early tend to be inmates formerly imprisoned for small crimes such as personal drug use. Meaning: National’s approach means that once again, we would be turning our backs on New Zealand’s belated embrace of a more enlightened approach to imprisonment.

Harsher sentences will not leave the community any safer. At some point, prisoners get released back into the community. While in prison, many will have joined gangs as a means of protection from other inmates, and they will have become more hardened and better trained criminals while inside.

On release, and in the absence of meaningful programmes of rehabilitation, drug treatment, anger management counselling and job creation, many of them will resume preying on the community. After a stint in prison, they’ll also be better at doing it.

We need only to look at the United States to see the folly of a sentencing regime based on longer and harsher sentences. They are a wildly expensive dead end for society.

The racial dimension

Finally… The response to National’s gangs policy has not addressed its implications for race relations. New Zealand already imprisons Maori at rates far in excess of their share of the general population. The members of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power are predominantly Maori and Polynesian.

Tougher sentencing rules will leave judges with less room for discretion and for rehabilitation pathways. Therefore, this will increase the Maori and Pasifika rates of incarceration.

Is the National Party happy to pursue that outcome? What fresh community support (if any) is it offering to reduce the rates at which rangatahi Maori are joining gangs, and to help gang members to escape from their reliance on gangs and the criminal lifestyle?

Lest we forget, endemic poverty is also a form of violence. In future, ordinary citizens stand to be even more at risk from the punitively unequal society that National’s law and order policies will deliver.

By that time, the wealthy likes of Christopher Luxon and David Seymour will be able to avoid the social consequences of what they are currently advocating for the rest of us. The wealthy can always escape from crime, into gated communities.

From birth, many gang members have felt disposable while growing up, and worthless in adulthood. In part, that’s been a direct legacy of the free market policies that have destroyed jobs and left whole communities vulnerable to the scourge of meth, and other drugs. Yet there is a bi-partisan agreement not to talk about the economic drivers of gang membership.

Does National or ACT ever consider that neo-liberal economic policies – and the related destruction of relatively unskilled jobs across rural and provincial New Zealand – has contributed in any way to the rise in gang membership?

To the major parties, gangs seem to be like aliens who have fallen from the sky into our midst, and they must be destroyed at all costs. They barely qualify as human beings, let alone as fellow citizens with any rights at all.

Yet in Opotiki and in other towns like it, gang members are also friends, relatives and former schoolmates. The kids they taught at school, from the families who lived down the road. Sure, criminal gangs are predators. But they’re also a sign of a social and economic dysfunction that’s being left to fester, largely untreated.

The terror of Highway 101

In more innocent times, riding a motorbike in a black leather jacket with insignia on the back wasn’t seen to be quite so threatening: