January 7th, 2005  

Topic: freedom?

United Future is one of NZ minor parties know for their right leaning beliefs and religious conservatisim

That is the only way to describe United Future's proposed "law and order" policy. Though alternatively, it could be called a wishlist for the "hang 'em high" brigade. The policy includes

abolishing distinctions between different classes of drugs;
making drug dealers accomplices to the crimes of their customers;
specialist drug courts (the implication being different rules of procedure and lower standards of evidence);
scrapping concurrent sentencing;
mandatory life imprisonment for "heinous" crimes;
mandatory prison terms for repeat drug offenders;
allowing victims to appeal parole board decisions;
lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 12;
"voluntary chemical castration for sex offenders as a pre-condition of parole".

According to Marc Alexander, these moves are justified because otherwise "we'll keep building prisons." Which is a rather curious justification, given that the effect of the dramatically increased sentences and mandatory life imprisonment proposed will be more people in jail. Our prison system is already struggling due to the imposition of longer sentences - yet Alexander thinks that making them even longer will result in us building fewer jails? Crazy.

"Dealer liability" - or rather its target - is also curious. Sure, methamphetamine has been implicated in a couple of high-profile murders in the past few years - but alcohol contributed to 141 deaths and 555 serious injuries in 2003 through drink-driving alone. Overall, it is implicated in 60% of all incidents reported to police, 77% of street disorder and fighting offences, and 40% of serious assaults. By any sensible measure, Alexander is after the wrong dealers.

Further lowering the age of criminal responsibility means putting more children in prison. It's not just barbaric, it effectively writes people off for the rest of their lives. But the worst idea is chemical castration. Quite apart from the Orwellian phrasing of "voluntary... as a pre-condition of parole" (which implies that people who "choose" to hand over their wallets to muggers do so "voluntarily... as a condition of not being beaten"), this is simply a monstrous violation of human rights that treats people like animals, based on the crude belief that the root cause of sexual offending is nothing more than an over-active sex-drive. It's a simple solution for simple minds, whose aim is more to humiliate than cure - which in fact describes United Future's crime policies to a T. They are not interested in actually solving the problem, only in showing how vicious they can be. Unfortunately, that's par for the course from our politicians, and no doubt National, NZFirst, ACT and Phil Goff will all try to outbid United Future by being even more savage.

The problem with this bidding war is that it is predicated on a lie. The "need" for tougher sentences and harsher penalties is driven by the belief that crime is "out of control" and that nothing is being done about it. This is nothing more than dishonest fearmongering. Our crime statistics show that even in the middle of a P-epidemic crime rates have dropped, while clearance rates - the number of crimes solved by police - have increased. But what has increased is the reporting of crime in the media - which has led to (to quote a Ministry of Justice report) "an inaccurate and negative view of crime statistics". It has also led to policies which target this created media fantasy, rather than reality - which cannot be good in the long-term.

But perhaps what's most offensive is that all this viciousness won't work. A 1997 report into predicting trends in crime rates found that severity of punishment had "no significant deterrent effect", and that

No relationship was found between the changes in the number of prison inmates and recorded crime rates. The size of the prison population was not significant in any model... the size of the prison population does not significantly reduce the number of potential offenders

In other words, having harsher sentences in order to "keep criminals off the streets" doesn't reduce crime one iota. But it does allow politicians to gain votes by playing to the public's thirst for vengeance. I guess that's what's really important in criminal justice policy.