Why crime no longer pays

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

I watched last week’s TVNZ’s small party leaders’ debate and a Rodney Hide interview with John Campbell and came away with some developed thoughts on ACT’s hardline stance on crime. I had planned to do a blog post on it last week but it slipped my mind until I heard an account of a Dunedin North local candidates meeting. Let me elaborate:

In his interview with Campbell, Hide admitted that ACT had had problems with the economy in election campaigns in the past, with people “jogging past” economy-related billboards. Hide said that this had changed this election, but I doubt this is really the case. ACT has never had a more accommodating election in terms of theme – this is the first election year since its founding that NZ has been in a technical recession – yet its economic message has failed to sell. If voters had decided that ACT had all the answers for the crisis, the party would be polling closer to the 9% mark, not the 1.9% Curiablog’s poll of polls currently has it on.

A month or two ago, ACT itself realised that its economic message alone was once again unsaleable to most voters and switched to its perennial Ersatz issue – a hardline stance on crime. Locking up individual offenders has always married well with ACT’s doctrine of “personal responsibility”. It worked particularly well for ACT in 2002, during the economic “good times”, when it managed to increase its share of the party vote slightly to retain a 7% share. A pure economic stance in 2002 might have seen the party wiped out, or driven down to its 2005 rump level, three years early.

But the “Zero Tolerance for Crime”, “three strikes and you’re out (in)” message may have reached saturation point. Since ACT turned to the familiar drum, there has been no sudden surge in support for the party, as in 2002. I found it revealing that in the crime question on the TVNZ debate, ACT was the only one to advocate the familiar tough stance on criminals. In elections past, it could have expected to have been joined by National (especially in 2005) and New Zealand First. But in 2008, the rhetoric has shifted to tackling the “root causes” of the problem – as Jeanette Fitzsimons pointed out. Rodney Hide professed to agree with Tariana Turia when she said that the best way of stopping young offenders was to give them jobs – yet why didn’t he say that himself?

As I said, this slipped my mind until I heard an account of a local candidates meeting in the Dunedin North electorate, which took place last night. When asked by the moderator what the solution to young people getting into trouble was, all the candidates agreed that root causes needed to be addressed. Except one – sixth-placed ACT list candidate Hilary Calvert, who took the simplistic ACT stance of taking a hard-line early on.

Perhaps there has been a shift in public opinion on crime. For years, right-wing politicians, including ACT ones, have advocated only tougher sentences as a way to deal with criminals. A bidding war of some sorts has already taken place. The result?

  • Criminals are already treated more harshly than before. 20+ year prison sentences for murder are now commonplace and judges have discretion over non-parole periods – in the 1990s, by contrast, a life-sentence was a fixed 15 years and judges had so little say that sentencing always took place immediately after the verdict was given.
  • Several new prisons have been built and we are locking up more people than ever before and in new ways such as home detention (which, by the way, is not primarily used as a “soft option” to real gaols but to give judges a real choice over non-custodial sentence which would normally have to be imposed for lesser offences). These are just some examples of the tougher stance on crime that I have to hand – I’m sure a legal observer would have many more.
  • Despite all these measures, violent crime is still increasing

New Zealand has tried locking more people up and has ended up with one of the highest imprisonment rates per capita in the world. Sentences are tougher than ever before. But this has not led to a reduction in the violent crime rate. This being the case, politicians – and voters – have turned against simplistic solutions with clever slogans. Locking up violent offenders is merely the cliched “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff”. Voters are now looking for something more than chaining up the individual offenders.

As Fitzsimons and Turia realise, the only realistic way to solve crime is by tackling the original societal causes of crime – which I think most would agree would include poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of hope. And much of the preventable violent crime (gang and street offending) takes place in one area particularly afflicted by those scourges – South Auckland.

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