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Rough Justice

Written By: - Date published: 10:28 am, July 31st, 2010 - 14 comments
Categories: crime, law and "order", police, prisons, us politics - Tags: , , ,

The Economist has a great article looking at the American propensity to deprive their citizens of their liberty for trivial offenses.

America is different from the rest of the world in lots of ways, many of them good. One of the bad ones is its willingness to lock up its citizens (see our briefing). One American adult in 100 festers behind bars (with the rate rising to one in nine for young black men). Its imprisoned population, at 2.3m, exceeds that of 15 of its states. No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free. The rate of incarceration is a fifth of America’s level in Britain, a ninth in Germany and a twelfth in Japan.

As they point out it is primarily a political problem

Some parts of America have long taken a tough, frontier attitude to justice. That tendency sharpened around four decades ago as rising crime became an emotive political issue and voters took to backing politicians who promised to stamp on it. This created a ratchet effect: lawmakers who wish to sound tough must propose laws tougher than the ones that the last chap who wanted to sound tough proposed. When the crime rate falls, tough sentences are hailed as the cause, even when demography or other factors may matter more; when the rate rises tough sentences are demanded to solve the problem. As a result, America’s incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970.

The same thing has been happening at a lesser rate in other countries as well for the same reason. In NZ we’ve been seeing this counter-productive trend for some time. People are being locked up for longer for more and more trivial offenses. There appears to be little or no effect on the rate that crimes are committed. What does make a difference is funding the police so that they are able to do their job. This was quite evident in large increases in police numbers through the 00’s to the point that they were able to detect and deal with the minor offenses that lead on to further offenses.

Conservatives and liberals will always feud about the right level of punishment. Most Americans think that dangerous criminals, which statistically usually means young men, should go to prison for long periods of time, especially for violent offences. Even by that standard, the extreme toughness of American laws, especially the ever broader classes of ‘criminals’ affected by them, seems increasingly counterproductive.

Many states have mandatory minimum sentences, which remove judges’ discretion to show mercy, even when the circumstances of a case cry out for it. ‘Three strikes’ laws, which were at first used to put away persistently violent criminals for life, have in several states been applied to lesser offenders. The war on drugs has led to harsh sentences not just for dealing illegal drugs, but also for selling prescription drugs illegally. Peddling a handful can lead to a 15-year sentence.

This type of draconian punishment is just silly. After the arms race of promising to get ever tougher on crime, you can wind up going to jail for long periods for very trivial offenses. The only real result is that we wind up paying large amounts of our taxes to build and maintain prisons. Ultimately that money gets pulled away from the police and social programs that work to prevent crime. Quite simply increasing punishments doesn’t act as a deterrent, it is a waste of effort and resources.

It does not have to be this way. In the Netherlands, where the use of non-custodial sentences has grown, the prison population and the crime rate have both been falling (see article). Britain’s new government is proposing to replace jail for lesser offenders with community work. Some parts of America are bucking the national trend. New York cut its incarceration rate by 15% between 1997 and 2007, while reducing violent crime by 40%. This is welcome, but deeper reforms are required.

This is one of the few areas that I find myself in full agreement with Deborah Coddington. Her article last week “Victims’ clamour weighs heavily on scales of justice” was looking at the absurdities of the victimology

This is just that mad lot from Sensible Sentencing, who have the gall to try to call themselves a charity, having their hysterical influence on the National Government and its support party Act.

Who, for instance, does the ministry think it is kidding when it starts out by stating “a greater focus on victims will assist in reducing the cost and impact of crime on individuals and society in general”?

Then further on we find the ministry proposes to establish, among other initiatives, a “Victims of Crime Complaints Officer, and require criminal justice agencies to report to Parliament each year about their responsibilities to victims”.

This officer would tell Parliament how many complaints were received, which agency received the complaints, what they were, whether they were sorted out, and how, ad nauseum.

You can see where this new bureaucracy is going.

Set up a complaints department and the moaners will form a disorderly queue.

There is a lot more in that short article. The nett effect is likely to be more people being incarcerated for longer for no real reason and a grave distortion on the process of the justice system. Simon Power is idiotic for bowing to the minor political pressure and actively pushing this policy.

In this coming election in 2011, I’d suggest that voters actively vote for candidates and parties with policies that are more orientated to preventing crime than pandering to the idiotic slogans of pressure groups like the Sensible Sentencing Trust. In fact don’t vote for anyone who hasn’t issued a statement saying that they think the SST are fools and why. It would be nice to get rid of them out of the political spectrum.


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14 comments on “Rough Justice”

  1. bbfloyd 1

    it is now the case in nz that certain charges now require the defendant to prove their innocence, rather than what, i know most of us regard as a cornerstone tenet of our justice? system. that is you are innocent untill proven guilty. the cannabis laws are one example that i know of where the law has been fundamentally changed to shift the onus of proof onto the defendant. it is unbelievable to me that such a fundamental shift toward napoleonic law can be undertaken without any kind of public knowledge. how far away are we from ordinary people being afraid of the police? and when bring arrested for any crime could mean families and friends of anyone arrested can be harrassed and arrested purely for associating with the person arrested? this can only be viewed as an attack on peoples ability to defend themselves from false arrest or police persecution.

  2. Jenny 2

    In a previous post on the causes of crime, I reviewed a recent report from New Scientist about social decay.

    I was startled by the conclusion by New Scientist that the rise in crime, tied with the rise in repression go up together, not in response to each other so much, as in relation to growth in the inequality in society.

    The rich become more fearful and paranoid and so indulge in more repression, while the poor feel more powerless and fearful and alienated and indulge in more crime.

    As New Scientist put it:

    The effects are felt right across society, not just among poor people. “Inequality seems to change the quality of social relations in society,’ says Wilkinson, “and people become more influenced by status competition.’ Anxiety about status leads to high levels of stress, which in turn leads to health problems, he says. In unequal societies trust drops away, community life weakens and society becomes more punitive because of fear up and down the social hierarchy.

    This third effect has more to do with the rise in both repression from the rich and powerful and crime by the poor and powerless.

    • Jenny 2.1

      My conclusion is that state sanctioned violence and repression ie. tasers, armed police building more prisons, more punitive sentences, is just as much a social negative as crime. Of course it doesn’t get quite the same amount of bad press.

      Captcha – dividing

    • lprent 2.2

      Do you have a link to that? Sounds interesting. But it does tally with my observations

      • Jenny 2.2.1

        Hi Lynne
        I am not sure which link you were referring to, the following is the link to my review. The link to the original New Scientist article which I based my comments on, appears at the end of my post.

        Cheers, Jenny

        The Underclass

        Here are some fuller quotes from the original New Scientist article:

        People in deprived areas face two kinds of hazard, Nettle says. First, there are constraints on what they are able to do to mitigate their situation. Diet is a prime example: ‘It’s much more expensive to get 2000 calories a day from fresh fruit and vegetables compared with eating junk food,’ Nettle says. Then the environment is often physically more dangerous and unhealthy. ‘People are doing more dangerous jobs. There is probably more air pollution, more car accidents, a higher crime rate, poorer housing – things you cannot really do much about, which trigger a downward spiral of faster living and less attention to health.’

        It’s all relative
        Still, reducing poverty alone probably isn’t the answer. In their book The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, 2009), epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, of the universities of Nottingham and York, UK, respectively, emphasize the degree of income inequality in a society rather than poverty per se as being a major factor in issues such as death and disease rates, teenage motherhood and levels of violence. They show that nations such as the US and UK, which have the greatest inequality in income levels of all developed nations, also have the lowest life expectancy among those nations, the highest levels of teenage motherhood (see diagrams) and a range of social problems.
        The effects are felt right across society, not just among poor people. ‘Inequality seems to change the quality of social relations in society,’ says Wilkinson, ‘and people become more influenced by status competition.’ Anxiety about status leads to high levels of stress, which in turn leads to health problems, he says. In unequal societies trust drops away, community life weakens and society becomes more punitive because of fear up and down the social hierarchy.
        ‘Really dealing with economic inequalities is difficult because it involves unpopular things like raising tax,’ says Nettle. ‘So rather than fighting the fire, people have been trying to disperse the smoke.’ Politically it is much easier to pump money into education programs even if the evidence suggests that these are, on the whole, pretty ineffective at reducing the effects of poverty.
        There are two quite different ways that societies can be made more equal, Wilkinson says. Some countries, like Sweden, do it by redistribution, with high taxes and welfare benefits. In others, earnings are less unequal in the first place. Japan is one such country, and it has one of the highest average life expectancies and lowest levels of social problems among developed nations. Other important factors, says Wilkinson, are strong unions and economic democracy.

        PS. The first quote I thought was very pertinent to the current debate on removing GST on food which is currently making it’s way through parliament. A social good that of course John Key instinctively and vehemently opposes.

        A bid to remove GST on healthy foods to lower costs has been slammed by the Government.
        Prime Minister John Key said the Government will not support Maori MP Rahui Katene’s bill

    • ZB 2.3

      Why do people band around negatives as if they could add to a debate, negatives are symptoms not causes, they are what get our attention but do not provide the whole solution. The error of ACT, Sensible Sentencing Trust neo-simplistic solutions are just that they stay concentrated on the symptoms. Laws goes out and sells Gang branding! Intimidation! It was a shocker to hear, now more people than ever fear gang patches like many in gangs want!

      We cannot have civil liberties without a civil society. America fails because instead of providing a civil society it spent its oil money providing a seperated society, everyone loving a large yard away from each other and cars doors seperating them. NZ has a poor civil rights record, high gang participation and high crime indicate that our society is not as civil as it could be.

      So what I’m trying to say is you can either claim a strong human rights society by keeping people from engaging one another (faking it) or you can like so many Western European State actually get on with solving social problems and showing citizens how and why other citizens need space, need citizens to give up a little. e.g. Londoners, NYers, all have the habit of going round people in their way, because it takes longer to ask people to move! This breeds people who are capable of not taking easy offense, they accept, because they see it ever day, people unthinkingly getting in each others way and know that those who will succeed will be those who get over it and move on, focused.
      Suburbs allow people to just get on, they keep everyone out of each others way, and so breed a much less tolerant car driving and neighbor society. This is why NZ needs medium housing in and around city centers, to breed social citizens that learn how to get along without having to spend half an hour nattering pleasentries like they lived in the back country! Geez.

      Create diverse living environments, solve the human density problems and you get better civil rights, civil societies,
      do the opposite, segregate and keep citizens apart and they will never learn. Gangs are an indictator of a failure of civil rights and we should all be ashamed, most especially the Human Rights Commission who seem more interested in protecting the rights of gangs to assemble by being silent about the law abiding rights of citizens. Gangs are unions of young men who are disaffected, looking for security, and seeking status. They are not new, gangs exist whereever there is a breakdown of governance, and putting young men in jail just makes them worse when they only crime was trying to survive. Full employment should be a government goal, repression was easy like cheap easy oil and debt, now repression will cost us all more as we come more insecure and push even more young men into gangs.

    • Good comment Jenny. This mirrors the findings in the book “The Spirit Level”.

      The greater the inequality the worse the performance of the society.

  3. Ag 3

    Why is this a surprise?

    The US is, despite its traditions of individual liberty, peopled by very authoritarian (in the social psych sense) folk. It’s a very strange culture where people constantly laud freedom in the abstract, but are deathly afraid of it in the concrete.

  4. Marco 4

    I agree that ending social deprivation will have a stronger influence on crime than tougher sentences. What tougher sentences achieve is more abhorrent crime as criminals fight harder to avoid capture.

    However, fringe groups such as SST provide an outlet for people and it’s up to politicians to ignore them rather than pander to them. Sea Shepard in some circles could be considered a group as reactionary as SST, even Greenpeace have openly disapproved of their methods.

    Whilst most people would like lower crime and and end to whaling and groups like these have a right to express their opinions, unfortunately these extreme views sell advertising for media outlets so they won’t go away in a hurry.

  5. randal 5

    the pinheads rool dude.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      Yep, I’m very very glad that I don’t live in the US – the home of the eternally paranoid.

  6. Rex Widerstrom 7

    Yes, we’re not as bad as America but we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves because we’re getting there… and by a route which is more pervasive and dangerous. The US does, as other commenters have pointed out, have an authoritarian streak. Australia and NZ do not… the former was founded by convicts, for goodness sake!

    We’re not, for the most part, instinctively inclined to draconian punishments. But we’re having this tolerance eroded daily by the sickening exploitation of victims by the Sensible Sentencing Trust and their allies in the media, always on the lookout for tears and raw emotion no matter whether it’s an eliminated reality show contestant or the spouse of a murder victim.

    Our natural tendency toward reason and balance, toward punishment and rehabilitation, toward condemnation and compassion, is constantly attacked. “What, you don’t want this young offender locked away without natural light and subject to prison rape?! Why, you’re as good as telling this grieving widow to go to hell!!”

    The SST uses the very qualities that have led NZers to take a “sensible” view of justice and manipulates them into making us feel guilty. Almost, I’d go so far as to say, feel like parties to the crime unless we join the chorus baying for harsher punishments.

    The truly sad thing is, when the anger stage of the grief process has passed (and we “grieve” for everything from a stolen bicycle to a murdered loved one) rationality returns. But by then the SST doesn’t want to hear from victims. Nor does the “system” – I’ll bet that if the “Victims of Crime Complaints Officer” starts receiving complaints that the process as it stands is doing nothing to help victims cope, it’ll be disestablished or otherwise be swept under the carpet.

    What McVictim and his crew are doing is fighting to deny victims the kind of freedom from sorrow and anger experienced by this woman.

    LP, I commend your last paragraph to everyone. I just hope that by 2011, some party has expressed such sentiments because as it stands at present none are worthy of consideration under your criteria (though based on their performance in Australia on this issue, I have high hopes for the Greens).

  7. Roger 8

    I read this in a local paper some time ago that suggests a link between a highly punitive justice system and higher crime rates, it is worth a read.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/opinion/off-pat/3259999/Expert-warning-on-get-tough-rules

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