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Newtering the rhetoric on crime

Written By: - Date published: 1:33 pm, January 11th, 2011 - 34 comments
Categories: crime, politicans, prisons, us politics - Tags:

Our prisons might be worth the current cost if the recidivism rate were not so high, but… half of the prisoners released this year are expected to be back in prison within three years. If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.

That quote is not about New Zealand, but it easily could be – 37 percent of those we release today will have returned to prison two years hence; 44 percent by the three-years from now and a staggering 49 percent by 48 months.

Whether or not one cares what happens to “criminal scum”, it’s evident prisons aren’t performing their primary, and most vital, function of protecting society by reducing crime.

As has been amply demonstrated by comments on The Standard in recent days, there are many who believe that the answer to an ineffective deterrent is more deterrent; that leaving in place the likelihood that fleeing from a police car will result in your death is somehow discouraging an unknown number of drivers from fleeing. At least that’s the obvious conclusion to be drawn from claims that to reserve high speed pursuits only for situations in which the danger of permitting the offender to continue on the road clearly outweighed the danger of chasing them would result in “anarchy”. Unless the state wields the biggest possible stick – ideally studded with a few nails – the argument seems to go, criminality will flourish and the streets will run red with the blood of innocents.

Increasingly, though, people who respond with their critical faculties as opposed to their knees are realising that the present model of law enforcement and incarceration is a failure. Here’s one such commentator:

Some people attribute the nation’s recent drop in crime to more people being locked up. But the facts show otherwise. While crime fell in nearly every state over the past seven years, some of those with the largest reductions in crime have also lowered their prison population…

Consider events in Texas, which is known to be tough on crime. Conservative Republicans joined with Democrats in adopting incentive-based funding to strengthen the state’s probation system in 2005. Then in 2007, they decided against building more prisons and instead opted to enhance proven community corrections approaches such as drug courts. The reforms are forecast to save $2 billion in prison costs over five years.

…we both endorsed corrections reforms in South Carolina that will reserve costly prison beds for dangerous criminals while punishing low-risk offenders through lower-cost community supervision.

Who are these limp wristed liberals, these soft-on-crime civil libertarians? None other than former Congressional Speaker (from 1995 to 1999) and Republican leader Newt Gingrich and Republican leader (from 1984 to 1988) of the California State Assembly Pat Nolan.

While Nolan has gone on to become vice president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, Newt Gingrich remains an influential figure on the right whom some speculate will make a run for the Republican Presidential nomination next year. So while Nolan may be motivated by Christian concern for the fallen, Gingrich still very much has his eye on political office, a populist roads to get there – he just seems to have realised that generating fear to get elected and then failing to keep communities safe is a path to eventual disillusionment and electoral failure.

So, perhaps not with the noblest of motives, he’s accepted that politicians need to lead on this issue… to sell what will be, for many voters, an initially unpopular approach on the basis that this is what works. And there’s no denying that work it does:

Florida’s incarceration rate has increased 16 percent, while New York’s decreased 16 percent. Yet the crime rate in New York has fallen twice as much as Florida’s. Put another way, although New York spent less on its prisons, it delivered better public safety.

Given his past record, I doubt Gingrich has so much as a scintilla of concern for prisoners and their families. Instead, what appears to have brought him to this epiphany is the success of prison reform in achieving two objectives: saving the state significant sums of money whilst better protecting the law-abiding public. Both those reasons and valid, legitimate and equally noble. If, in the back of one’s mind, one harbours concern for offenders there’s no need even to mention it… those two measures of success are potentially more than enough on which to construct a platform.

Fertile ground remains for a New Zealand politician to adopt the same stance. Who, I wonder, will have the courage?

Rex Widerstrom is a former advisor to the New Zealand First and ACT parties; a former Parliamentary candidate and political party spokesperson; is presently State Director (WA) of Civil Liberties Australia and represents prisoners in human rights related cases before various courts and tribunals.

34 comments on “Newtering the rhetoric on crime”

  1. Good comment Rex.

    This debate highlights for me recent debates about left-wingers and right wingers brains although your view is more nuanced than that. When the response to crime is fear then an escalating violent response is the only tool in the tool kit. If the response is a rational one then alternatives have to be tried.

  2. Bill 2

    Sorry Rex. Can’t resist. Are you suggesting we lob lizards at the ‘get tough’ brigade?

  3. Ana 3

    ” Former Governor of WA, John Sanderson, was right in saying that the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prisons would be thought of as civil war in any other part of the world.
    “This whole tough on crime approach is counterproductive… and just creates a prison industrial complex.”

    Prison victim handed a ‘death sentence’: uncle

    [deleted]

    added

    [lprent: This isn’t a cut’n’paste site. Your own opinions, judicious quoting, and use links please. Don’t make me do the work again because you’re likely to make me decide that too much effort is involved. Read the policy. ]

  4. MikeE 4

    Get rid of prison sentances for drug related “crime” (And treat it for what it is, a health issue) and you are going to free up enormous resourses in corrections to

    a) lock up the bad bastards who shouldn’t be let out (face it, burton and the likes aren’t going to get rehibilitated, ever)….
    b) rehabilitate those who still show a chance

    with the added bonus of completely destroying criminal gangs cashflow in NZ..

    but of course, neither the left, nor the right have the balls to do this…

    • Rich 4.1

      One area where I agree entirely with MikeE.

    • Deadly_NZ 4.2

      Yep I pretty much said the same well probably a bit more on this, and i’ll probablty keep on because it is an incredible amount of money to waste on a weed that makes you feel good. No violence like with Alcohol.

      But with all the dangerous drug sites place Nicotine Alcohol and Caffeine all legal high upon a list.
      http://drbenkim.com/ten-most-dangerous-drugs.html
      or here
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/nov/02/david-nutt-dangerous-drug-list

      Then maybe if someone HAD the cojone’s to legalise or decriminalise marijuana then the savings to the government would, even pay for Blinglish’s TaxCut ripoff.

      Billions saved on Hunting for plantations (govt can run them)
      Millions saved in the prosecution for Joe Public Havin a toke at home
      Millions saved in not having 5 police cars and a dog arriving as said Joe public’s house co’s he’s havin a toke
      Millions Made in Tax and Govt production Keep the tobacco companies out cos they will be broke cos Nicotine is made Illegal Alcohol is priced Properly.
      The Power of the Gang’s in their ‘tinny houses’ is broken,gives more time and resources to hunt for the dangerous drugs like P’.
      And as NZ well according to the polls, has a healthy following of the weed.
      And it really was only made illegal for some of the oddest and unscientific reasons dreamt up by those who had an agenda. Like Dupont who invented Nylon, he wanted it banned because Hemp would compete with him, here read it for your self.
      http://www.drugwarrant.com/articles/why-is-marijuana-illegal
      http://www.concept420.com/marijuana_cannabis_history_timeline.htm

      Okay thats my 5 cents worth I await the Flames.

  5. Bunji 5

    Interestingly Trevor Mallard was also inspired by Standard debate, and proposed Simon Power should work with Labour in stopping prison sentence bidding-wars and come up with an at least 2 party solution. So there may be hope…

    I never understood National’s desperation to get rid of parole (a strong campaigning platform in 2008). It’s like they want the recidivism rate to go up. No, we must not prepare our prisoners for life outside these 4 walls!

    • He did? Thanks Bunji, I missed that entirely… unsurprisingly, since AFAIK the MSM didn’t pick it up at all. Whereas when the Opposition AG in in NSW made the same suggestion, media here were all over it.

      I hope he takes the fight right up to Simon Power and keeps pressing for it. And I hope the person who should be making such suggestions, Lianne Dalziel, emerges from hiding and actually makes some contribution to the debate this year.

      Or better yet, Goff reshuffles and gives the position to Trevor, one of the few politicians I can imagine having the kid of guts I call for in my last paragraph.

      • Colonial Viper 5.1.1

        We need pollies willing to change society for the better. And a public willing to back them up and make sure through mass pressure that they don’t go weak kneed at the last moment.

      • Philoff 5.1.2

        I am pretty sure Dalziel would entirely agree with you Rex, so it might be worth writing to her (if you haven’t already).

    • QoT 5.2

      I really felt that Mallard’s post was a bit of a cop-out though – as though the only possible solution is both parties dropping the lock-em-up rhetoric and oh, well, if National won’t play with us then we’ll just keep on with the same old punitive talkbackland rubbish.

      • You’re right. It’s a toe in the water. How about we all show Trevor that not everyone will chew off his entire leg by sending him a “well done, but…” message?

        And while we’re at it, one to Goff indicating this is one area where Labour could carve out a strong brand position and claim savings which it could then use to buy win votes in the good, old fashioned way.

        • QoT 5.2.1.1

          I see your point, Rex, I do. But … Mallard is a senior member of the second-biggest party in Parliament and he’s pretty well paid to theoretically act in the interests of New Zealanders. He doesn’t need minor bloggers to approve every time he posits basing policy on facts, empathy and the safety of NZ communities and the mainstream media isn’t going to tear him to pieces just because a minor blogger who’s obviously a bit radical demands more. (They have plenty of other partisan shit going on.)

          • Rex Widerstrom 5.2.1.1.1

            I also see your point QoT… I’ve been (and remain) highly critical of Labour’s performance in this area (and others) and think Lianne Dalziel should be stripped of the portfolio. To be fair to Trevor it is her policy area, and I guess that Labour, like most parties, is subject to all sorts of petty and counter-productive turf wars.

            And while he may not need “minor bloggers” to approve (I presume you speak for yourself with that description BTW 😉 ) a quick look through the comments on any MSM online story on crime and punishment issues is enough to deter any party from a stance that might be picked up as “soft” on crime (look at the poll that showed, apparently, 72% of people supported police chases, even though many end in death and most are of petty criminals).

            Considering the baying of the hounds is always audible in the distance, a few soothing noises from minor bloggers may encourage this principle to emerge timidly from whatever cave in the Labour manifesto it’s been hiding in 🙂

            • QoT 5.2.1.1.1.1

              They’re sure not going to like my next post, then so thankfully I am the minor blogger I was talking about!

              I worry we’re (we = the left) stuck in a bind, though. The media clearly has no interest in dropping the fearmongering and crime-hype, and don’t want to undermine their own propaganda by letting slip that there’s another way to look at and treat these issues. But if they’re almost never going to actually be fair and balanced and fact-based … how can we ever advocate for good, solid, compassionate policy when they have such a huge influence on the debate?

              Which is pretty much why I (as a pseudonymous blogger with no current career-stake in parties’ political success) think we just say fuck ’em and go the whole hog with radical, strident policy.

              • Ooo I can’t wait for your next post now. That’s some sophisticated link whoring 😉

                A “radical, strident policy” is fine if you want to stake out a principled position but not very helpful in winning hearts and minds, which we (we = anyone not in the lynch mob) presumably want. Because public support (read: votes) is the only thing that’ll give polticians the courage.

                If, as some commenters are saying, McVicar is fading from prominence well he can afford to – his work is all but done. NZ society is riddled with people who’d buy tickets to an execution, and care not one whit about the actual guilt of the prisoner. If McVicar never says a word (not that I’m predicting that happy event), his echoes will live on in the words of people like Michael Laws and Ron Mark.

                If someone who matters (like a senior politician in NZ’s second largest political party) takes a strong – but not too radical, so as not to risk being dismissed as a moonbat – stance against McVicar-style hatred, the media is offered an alternative “infotainment” – a brawl between competing ideologies. And ironically it needs, initially at least, a McVicar figure against whom he or she can debate.

                • QoT

                  Ha, I’m such a tease. But yeah, it’s good progress for Mallard to even be talking about this. Damn social change and its inherent slowness.

                  • Bunji

                    I’d say, QoT, that the media a) read blogs and b) don’t like to be out of touch. So if they get a feeling that there’s a significant feeling against “lock ’em up” out there, they’re likely to tone down their rhetoric too. Every “minor blogger” helps. Of course letters to the editor and MPs might have a more direct effect, but hey, it’s all in the right direction.

                    And yes, damn social change and its inherent slowness…
                    (I’m sure we’ll get equal pay and boardroom representation for women, equal job opportunities for non-whites and gay people not being assaulted for their sexuality some time soon…)

                    • QoT

                      Any day now, Bunji, according to the latest memo!

                    • Blondie

                      Absolutely, the media read blogs. I found myself being quoted by mainstream media quite frequently when I was writing for Whaleoil.

                      So I would have no doubt whatsoever that the media also read The Standard and other online publications. Hence, it is well worth putting forth our viewpoints online – as a well-executed argument may well sway the MSM and public opinion.

  6. Addicition, mental health issues and the lack of jobs all need to be addressed to prevent going to prison or returning to prision.

    • Bill 6.1

      Gee. Like socially centred policies? Meaning, getting rid of the underlying causes of addiction and crime and so on? Can’t see that happening any time ( and I don’t mean ‘any time soon’) while we are stuck with Labour or National led governements.

      • Treetop 6.1.1

        One cannot expect a person to find their mojo when thrown in the can for a health issue or the effects of not finding work. Jail solves nothing for these offenders as they are reacting to causes which when addressed does reduce the condition/problem which is the imbalance/stress in their life.

  7. IrishBill 7

    Bloody good post. I’ve been heartened by the move away from lock ’em up rhetoric in the media and the fact McVicar seems to have been sidelined. Perhaps there is some hope yet.

  8. I agree personally with the sentiment expressed by Rex.

    One aspect that I would offer to explain, rather than to justify, Labour’s stance during the last Government was that it was heavily influenced by English Labour’s “third way”. Tony Blair campaigned in 1997 with a theme of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” and this amongst other policies was thought to have made Labour electable in the UK.

    As I said I agree with the intent and the need to get away from current punishment models but god damn it how do you bring the electorate with you?

    • Thanks mickey. Alas WA Labor under Geoff Gallop (a longstanding personal friend, dating back to university days, of Blair’s) took the same approach. Blair has a lot to answer for… there are times I wish people would just take a break from lambasting him over Iraq so the damaging effects of his other policies could be debated more often.

      I think Gingrich is on to how to take the electorate with us. Try saying this:

      – Half the people we send to prison are going to commit at least one more crime within four years of their release, and it doesn’t seem to matter how tough we make our prisons because figures from the US and NZ are much the same. So prisons aren’t protecting you.

      – On the other hand, alternatives to prison have been proven to work in reducing reoffending.

      – Alternatives to prison are always cheaper than prison. Why should taxpayers waste their money sending someone to a crime university when we’re wasting that money on one out of every two “graduates”, because they remain criminals?

      – The money we save by not sending x people to prison equates to $y. This represents z number of [other good things the voter is likely to want].

      – So, no matter how much you may personally hate criminal scum, do you want;
      – – A safer community
      – – Less money spent on those scum
      – – Lots more of z
      or do you just want revenge?

      Use facts and figures, shown where possible as pictograms and graphs (so even Paula Bennett will understand! 😀 )

      There’s a belief that the old Muldoon technique of an easel of charts on stage will turn people off. It won’t. Admittedly I used Powerpoints in 1996 to illustrate immigration statistics and alternatives but people – some people at least – have both the intelligence and the willingness to try to understand.

    • QoT 8.2

      To quote eastsidekate, “the third way is a lot like the other two, only more condescending.”

  9. Colonial Viper 9

    Looks like the new Republican Governor for Georgia has been willing to vary from the hard line. Apparently 1 in 13 Georgians are under correctional control currently and it is emptying the state’s coffers.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/10/nathan-deal-drug-addicts-jail_n_807016.html

    For violent and repeat offenders, we will make you pay for your crimes. For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with Day Reporting Centers, Drug, DUI and Mental Health Courts and expanded probation and treatment options. As a State, we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions. It is draining our State Treasury and depleting our workforce.

    • nadis 9.1

      That seems sensible. More so than any other topic law and order is a discourse which is captured by extremes at both ends (it is society’s fault versus lock them up forever). Reshape the debate in economic terms (to justify to the right) and always recognise there is a small number of irredeemable bad bastards who do need locking up then an intervention/treatment and lock up the really bad ones barbell strategy would, I am sure, be palatable for the mainstream.

      I also think people miss the point when they say “harsh sentences don’t act as a deterrent.” That is true for the vast majority of non-premeditated activity. But when a bad bastard gets a long sentence to most NZ’ers looking at the news, the sentence isn’t designed to be a deterrent to others it’s designed to keep that bad bastard out of the community which he has elected to opt out from.

      The real difficulty in selling this new approach though is where the SST gathers its strength from – victim impact. Scenario – P addict breaks burgles a house, assaults an elderly homeowner, makes off with low value goods. Yes I agree, a poorly educated, unemployed P addict stealing for addiction fits into the category that should be actively managed rather than locked up, but how do you square that with an elderly homeowner with a broken nose? For the homeowner the assault is probably massively life changing (off to a rest home etc). How do you sell the policy then? Stats are one thing but an identifiable individual is much more emotive.

      • Deadly_NZ 9.1.1

        But at the End of the day if the scumbag is so cowardly as to break into a house when they know the person inside is helpless should be locked up for a very very long time then at least the poor person who got assaulted knows that scumbag s not coming back. it’s not much but peace of mind is good. Unfortunatly these are the type of scumbag that seems to get bail because they have a lawyer on speed dial. this needs to be tightened up.

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