Gordon Campbell on talking tough about law and order

9234b0389027b7555c44Harsh sentences are being offered as a deterrent to crime, but voters are being sold a crock. For one thing… Fear of the consequences loses its
sting when “normal” life is so harsh that some offenders feel they have nothing left to lose. For many, their experience (from childhood) of poverty, neglect, hunger, homelessness, mental illness, and physical and sexual abuse beats anything the courts could possibly impose.

Locking such people away earlier, and for longer doesn’t really solve anything for anyone. Eventually, those offenders will be released back into the community, and by that point, crime is likely to be the only means of making a living left open to them, even for the ones genuinely seeking to turn their lives around. Even if jobs were available, what employer would take a chance on them? What landlord will rent to them, when they can’t get credit or open a bank account? In prison they will have learned to be better criminals. In prison, many will have had to turn to the gangs for protection.

That’s what is so ironic about the law and order “debate” in this year’s election. Yes, many voters are afraid, even though, thankfully, few of them will ever experience an act of violent crime themselves. Even so, their sense of insecurity is genuine. Most of the political “solutions” on offer are not. Harsher sentences, rhetoric about cracking down on gangs, bringing back Three Strikes, sending young offenders to boot camps, reducing the ability of judges to consider alternatives to prison… All of these policies have been tried before, and they are known to fail, dismally.

In comparison…

Far from being “soft on crime”, New Zealand still has one of the highest rates of imprisonment – about 170 for every 100,000 of the population – in the developed world. The OECD average is only 147. Ireland, which has roughly the same population as New Zealand, had an imprisonment rate last year of only 76.4 per 100,000 of the population. To repeat: New Zealand is not “soft on crime.” If anything, “lock em up” seems to be our default setting. Reportedly, it costs taxpayers $193,000 on average each year to house this country’s current prison roster of 8,376 inmates. Do the math. It comes out at $1,618,568,000 annually. Yet some of our politicians want to significantly add to that cost. It is a road to nowhere.

Unfortunately, there are no votes to be won – and no clickbait numbers to be achieved – by taking a long approach aimed at rehabilitation. Strikingly, last week’s announcement of the government’s plan to build two more youth offender facilities was “analysed” almost entirely in terms of its worth as election bait, as to whether the measures were coming “too little too late” to be successful at winning votes. Other reports focussed on the mistakes made in announcing the policy content. The actual merits (and drawbacks) of the state building and running new and special facilities for these 30 very high-risk youth offenders as an alternative path to prison, were almost totally ignored.

Similarly, figuring out how these new youth facilities might dovetail with the recent report by the Chief Science Adviser on gangs, was left unexplored. Ultimately, is it better for the state to run such facilities, or would better outcomes be achieved if community groups closer to the family/whanau were funded to do the long and complex work required to make a real difference in the lives of these kids? There seems to be little appetite for that kind of policy work. At heart, youth crime is a symptom of social deprivation, not a sign of inherent evil. There are no easy solutions to social deprivation and/or to income inequality. But if we’re truly interested in treating the causes of crime, that’s
what we have to be willing to tackle.

Instead, the politicians seem far more interested in getting alongside public fear and anger, and feeding on it. That’s where the votes and the clicks are seen to be. Let’s allow the Police to give these kids a good hiding down at the police station, as one member of the public was enabled to tell Morning Report at length, recently.

Costs and benefits

The path of harsh deterrence doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, it assumes an offender will
know the law and its penalties beforehand, such that they will do a quick cost/benefit analysis before proceeding to offend. Not many crimes are committed so coolly, with fore-knowledge of the likely consequences. Crimes committed by people fuelled by meth, by alcohol and by a range of mental health problems (personality disorders, PTSD, chronic depression etc.) do not tend to ground their actions in rational calculation. These crimes and the people who commit them should be being treated as public health concerns, with their treatment funded accordingly. Many of their offences may pose threats to public safety, but the offenders should not be being treated as criminally culpable for their actions.

Ah, but what about the ram-raids? What about the systematic use of young adolescents by gangs?
Pre-planning and rational calculation do occur there, and with an eye to the limited consequences for the young people apprehended. This is where it gets difficult. Society,
surely, still has a healthy desire to prevent child offenders from completing their gang apprenticeships and becoming career criminals. As mentioned, these kids can’t be scared straight – in many cases, their lives have already been more scary, and more violent than anything that the state can dish out.

The Greens have called for these young offenders to be handled by groups within their communities, and not by state agencies:

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson decried the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the main parties, saying they should be focused on the drivers instead. She said resources should not be going towards building more facilities, but to community-led projects.
“When the community is resourced to step up in place of youth justice facilities, they are having better outcomes than youth justice facilities. We need to be supporting more of that for the immediate stuff, as well as the long-term drivers of inequity.”

Good points, but fixing the “long term drivers of inequity” is easier said than
done. Many of the communities in question have had their jobs and livelihoods laid waste by decades of free market economics. Drugs and gangs have stepped into the breach left behind by such policies. It is exactly like climate change. We can’t seriously expect those ravaged communities – or the planet – to magically fix their problems themselves, while the policies being pursued in the wider world keep on generating more and more young people who feel that society washed its hands of them long ago, virtually at birth.

Sure, we all want the weather to return to normal, and we all want our neighbourhoods to go back to feeling safe. But it is delusional to think that this will be possible without us giving up anything at all. These kids are not only our problem. We have to also start seeing them as being our creation.

Footnote One: We have pretty clear historical evidence that harsh sentences don’t work. In 1689, there were 50 capital offenses in England and Wales, increasing to 220 by the end of the 18th century. Most of these laws had to do with the defence of property. Rather than deter the criminal who – being hanged on the gallows – was beyond rehabilitation. The sentences were meant to deter other people afflicted with the criminal impulse of being hungry.(Stealing anything worth more than 11 pence was a capital offence by the end of the 18th century. ) It was 1860 before Charles Dickens (in his penultimate novel Great Expectations) could present a convict character like Magwitch, a man driven to do wrong early in his life by circumstance but later capable of good and selfless deeds.

Footnote Two: I’ve mentioned this small and significant step before, but if we are serious about treating crime as a public health issue…. Maybe at least one political party at this election could promise a boost in funding for a tattoo removal programme in prisons. Gang tattoos done in adolescence out of bravado and defiance can be a real barrier to adults breaking ties with gangs and finding paid work. It would be a positive step for our plastic surgeons – some of whom make very big money out of performing breast reductions – to volunteer their skills to assist in this line of work.

Vampire Empire

Those who saw Big Thief during their tour here late last year will recall Adrianne Lenker introducing this new song…. Which was played onstage at a faster tempo than when they performed it on the Colbert show earlier this year. Well, here’s the studio version of “Vampire Empire” and the tempo has been slowed down even further. On the upside, this allows Lenker to really lean into these lyrics. Among other things, she’s singing about obsession and desperation and the longing for a stable point in between. Even though the falling does have its own self-annihilating attractions, as well.