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Time for a truce in sentencing bidding war

Written By: - Date published: 12:02 pm, January 12th, 2009 - 10 comments
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An interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald:

THE NSW Opposition has pledged to end the “law and order auction” in a dramatic break with the tradition of promising to increase punishments and fill jails that has characterised every state election campaign since 1988.

The Coalition’s justice spokesman, Greg Smith, who entered Parliament in 2007 with a reputation as a tough criminal prosecutor, said hardline sentencing and prisons policies – including those of his own party – have failed.

“I know that for a series of elections there was one side bidding against the other in what they called a law and order auction,” Mr Smith said. “I am concerned that prisoners are not properly being rehabilitated, not given a chance to go straight in a community that really would want them to go straight.”

Mr Smith said with 10,000 inmates in NSW jails and a recidivism rate of 43.5 per cent, the punitive approach was not working. “It seems to me that our prisons are full of people who suffered learning difficulties in their youth or had a deprived upbringing or have drug addiction or mental problems. There’s a lot of those people in our jails. I am not excusing the conduct that got them into jail but I think that some of them need more of a kick along from the system.

“I think you need to be, society needs to be, conscious of the fact that unless you do something for them after they get out of jail, the more likely they are to hurt society again and commit more crime.

“That’s where my pragmatic view comes in. Our recidivism rates are far too high and this harsh line that we have been taking, with the Government almost proud of the size of the prisons, and proud to build more, in my opinion, shows a lack of care for people in prisons, their families and the community generally, because it is short-sighted.”

An expert on justice policy, the Emeritus Professor in Criminal Law at the University of NSW, David Brown, said that after the Unsworth government lost the 1988 election to Nick Greiner, the new ALP leader, Bob Carr, bought into the law and order auction. “Once Carr let the law-and-order genie out of the bottle, it became standard political competition to posture over who was toughest on crime, setting up a dynamic that no-one, up to now, has had the courage to end,” Professor Brown said

“If Greg Smith can get the genie back in the bottle, negotiate an end to the auction and secure a bipartisan approach, so that each side gives up on scoring cheap political points  and looks to researched policies that reduce crime, recidivism and imprisonment, then he will be making one of the greatest contributions to justice and real community safety this state has seen.”

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties also hoped Mr Smith’s stand signals an end to the “auction”.

“Greg Smith is not a softie,” said the council president, Cameron Murphy. “He’s a tough-minded conservative. But the fact that someone like him is questioning the line shows just how absurd it’s become.”

As attorney-general in a Coalition government, Mr Smith would increase funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes, the Custody-Based Intensive Treatment program for sex offenders; education programs that teach inmates trades and skills; and post-release accommodation, such as halfway houses.

Last month, Mr Smith quietly released a critique of the Rees Government’s law and order policies, headed: “More jails not the best answer: money better spent on rehabilitation.”

“While the NSW Liberals/Nationals adhere to the view that punishment must fit the crime, there needs to be far more emphasis by the State Labor Government on rehabilitation programs, which give the prisoner a better chance of going straight, once released. Rehabilitation is cheaper than the cost of building more prisons and far more effective in helping our community to become a more peaceful place.”

Our elections, too, have been hijacked by the law and order auction, not least due to the hard line policies that Phil Goff pushed to help get the Fifth Labour Government to power. The result has just been more and more people in prison at ever greater cost to society. Yes, Labour brought crime down but it did so by tackling the causes of crime, unemployment and poverty, not by locking people up. In the long-run, all the ‘I’m tougher on crime than you’ competition leads to is bad policy. The Tories will always be willing to go to more stupid extremes, as we seenow with Judith Collins attacking parole and set to undermine home detention and chuck more people behind bars – even though home detention works resulting in lower recidivism for lower cost.

If only we too can have a truce on this political bidding war and, instead, start listening to what the experts on criminal behaviour say. Then we could have smart policy, targeting at-risk kids before they become criminals, intervening early when things start to go wrong, and giving people the choice of dignified work – not only could we then not throw so many people into the prison waste dump, we could save more people from being the victims of crime. But we won’t get smart policy while politicians keep thumping their chests and trying to out tough each other.

10 comments on “Time for a truce in sentencing bidding war”

  1. QoT 1

    Jeez, Steve, next thing you’ll be trying to tell us that crims are human beings just like the rest of us!

  2. Could someone please forward this article to Garth McVicar.

  3. Mr Magoo 3


    You are too slow mate. They have already responded with their own press releases around the same time:

    These guys are not rational and sending them ANYTHING would be a complete waste of time.

    My favourite quote:

    “”The only evidence required is already available for everyone to see, violent crime is escalating and child abuse and drug abuse is rampant, the time for talk is over.'”

    This nearly had me in stiches. It reminds me of that very famous movie quote from “Canadian Bacon”

    “”There’s a time for thinking, and a time for action. And this, gentlemen, is no time for thinking!””

    Other greats:

    “It’s time to turn off that war machine, and turn on our children.”

    “The American public’s attention span is about as long as your dick.”

    “Let me level with you, sir. I would destroy any nation – even my own – if my president gave the order.”

    “Secretary of State: We were thinking, what could be a bigger threat than aliens invading from space?
    General Panzer: Ooh boy! Scare the shit out of everyone. Even me, sir!
    U.S. President: Jesus, is this the best you could come up with? What about, ya know, international terrorism?
    General Panzer: Well, sir, we’re not going to re-open missile factories just to fight some creeps running around in exploding rental cars, are we, sir?”

  4. Hoolian 4

    How wonderfully coincidental. A press release http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0901/S00036.htm from the nutters at Rethinking Crime and Punishment. Isn’t it amazing how similar Clinton’s post is to the complete garbage espoused by RCP you’d almost think they were one in the same. Its one thing to hold a baseless and irrational viewpoint, but it’s another to replicate it and claim it as an honest and original post.

    However, I’d expect nothing less from Clinton.

    [I hadn’t seen the press release. Great minds, eh? SP. Oh and Hoolian, learn some civility or fuck off back to Kiwiblog]

  5. Pascal's bookie 5

    Mr. M
    That first link is golden. McVicar really does operate in a self awareness free zone:

    Her comments were attacked by Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime and Punishment who accused the Government of pushing through legislation in absence of evidence-based research, good information and adequate consultation.

    But Garth McVicar from Sensible Sentencing has leaped to the Ministers defence saying the catch-phrases used by Mr. Workman were just failed old clichés that had caused the problems New Zealand now faced.

    “The only evidence required is already available for everyone to see, violent crime is escalating and child abuse and drug abuse is rampant, the time for talk is over.

    Mr. McVicar said the National / Act Government campaigned to get tough on crime and was elected in a landslide victory.’

    That is the only consultation required, the Government has the support of the people, the Minister has a mandate to do exactly as she has said she will do.’

    “I can understand why these so-called criminal justice professionals are starting to squeal, they are responsible for the mess our country is in they have driven criminal justice policy and it has been a dismal failure.

    The evidence is there for all to see.

    (emphasis mine)

  6. Gooner 6

    I agree with you Steve and I have been classified as a ‘hard’ rightie. Politicians get involved in bidding wars on a myriad of issues and it’s bad, bad, bad for the country full stop – crime/justice or whatever else.

  7. Ianmac 7

    Great post thanks Steve. But in NZ I think we have to get over two hurdles at least:
    Public Perception: Media and Politicians have painted such a threatening position that to undo this will be extremely hard. (8 people in my living room strongly believe that prison is a cushy hotel and cannot see the loss of freedom, and being controlled by others as an unpleasant experience.)
    Political One-upmanship: Who would be the political clever-dick willing to lead a re-think about the real issues? John Key? Judith Collins?
    One Criminal lawyer spent a month or so in jail and said the most frightening (effective?) time was the first 28 days. After that he just normalised with the system. Longer time became an institutionalised blur.

  8. Matthew Pilott 8

    Something Collins said irked me – that it wasn’t about study and research, but about ‘public perception’. If the public perception is at odds with reality, should the government act based upon perception, or try and change it?

    In this case, perception is that we’re too soft on crims, and that they need to be locked up for longer, and also that parole and Home D are putting people at a greater risk.

    The reality is that the former does nothing, and that the two latter are safer options – lower reoffending rates, therefore a safer public.

    The lawnorder stance is to take the hard line – irrational folk such as McVicar refuse to see or accept this, and retort with ‘perception’ based responses – as evidenced by PB and mr M. In influencing a perception that puts society at risk, McVicar and co are consciously acting to put the poblic in greater danger.

    Hypothetically, McVicar can pat his back next time someone is put in hospital by someone who received a prison sentence instead of home detention – while obviously not directly responsible, he could take pride in knowing it wouldn’t have happened without his influence.

    Hoolian, you’re embarrassing yourself. ‘However, I’d expect nothing less from Hoolian’ (oh gosh how witty I sound now). Steve, you’re going soft in your old age, if someone who’d never made a sensible contribution accused me of plagiarism I wouldn’t suffer to have it happen again.

  9. Rex Widerstrom 9

    Hoolian, I spotted the SMH article last week and sent it to The Standard, so I’m afraid you owe SP an apology. And thanks to The Standard for picking up on the issue.

    Matthew Pilott, you’ve identified a vital point that RCP and many similar groups seem to overlook – and that’s that by not implementing effective sentencing and rehabilitation strategies, politicians are putting society at greater risk.

    Leaving aside how we may feel about the criminals for a moment, it’s simple common sense that if someone leaves the system (not necessarily prison) genuinely rehabilitated then the rest of the community is no longer at risk from that offender.

    Our present system doesn’t achieve this, with recidivism rates across the Western World of somewhere around 50% with some notable exceptions which can reduce to less than half that. And the exceptions are systems which treat the issues sensibly and without emotion.

    That doesn’t mean, as McVicar seems to think, “going soft” on criminals and not locking them up at all. It means, however, that if we’re going to lock them up then we owe it to society to do everything we can to use that time to rehabilitate them. Here’s what the mother of one young offender wrote recently (and to be honest, I was somewhat surprised by it). I’ve edited it for length:

    Just to update you on how its been since my son come home. Man! THIS has been one of the BEST weeks of my life!… My son has come out a totally different person. He is ‘clean’ thanks to drug rehabilitaiton inside. He has a totally different outlook on life, thanks to ‘time’ inside.

    I’m sure alot of ex offenders could agree, time inside allows you plenty of time to think of where you’re life is heading and where YOU want it to go in the future. This my son did. And my God in Heaven, it has been a hell of a tough journey, but I’m SO glad he went inside! He now has a focus on where he wants his life to go. He has a brlliant ‘business’ idea that is currently underway and that I am confident will be a huge success given the right education on running a business and learning a marketing program which he is ready to learn.

    On the day that we picked him up, we had arranged a family bbq. He got up in front of us all and gave the most humble, confessional, heartbreaking speech that he had been preparing for 3 months prior to his release. He had us all in tears…

    BUT at the end of it all, I have to honestly say I’m GLAD he spent time inside! I love who he is now, who I am now, and who we ALL as a family are now thanks to this experience.

    But that’s someone who spent most of their time in a privately run Australian prison which is remunerated partly on long term results – i.e. the fewer of its inmates who come back into the system, the more money they get paid. Therefore they’re highly incentivised to ensure that the time spent inside isn’t simply looking at a brick wall, expanding your network of criminal associates, and plotting your next offence.

    The fact that McVicar won’t stop ranting and spewing bile long enough to contemplate the point Matthew makes about the safety of the wider community shows just what a danger he is. It’s time someone stood up to him directly, which Kim Workman appears not to want to do (and probably for good reason).

  10. DeepRed 10

    I doubt the McVicars of this world will ever come to their senses, unless there’s some kind of Los Angeles ’92 or Greece ’08.

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