Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Dishonest fearmongering

Plenty of people are attacking Don Brash's recent law and order speech in which he demanded that our criminal justice system treat its subjects with even more savagery. The attacks have focused on the policy prescriptions - the cost of building more prisons, the stupidity of eliminating parole - but since that ground seems well-covered for the moment, I thought I'd start from the other end. Brash's argument for those policy prescriptions is built on the idea that crime is out of control, that the government is failing in its basic duty to protect its citizen's lives and property, and that nothing is being done about it. He goes out of his way at the beginning to establish a picture of a society wracked by violent crime, in which "women and older New Zealanders are forced to significantly modify their behaviour because of the threat of violence", "our children are much less safe than they should be", and

appalling family violence, resulting in death and disfigurement for women and children; random killings by drug-crazed criminals out on parole; brutal muggings of young tourists visiting our country; dangerous and often drunk drivers, many with numerous previous driving convictions, killing people on the roads
are all everyday (and highly frequent) occurrences.

The problem is that none of this is really borne out by the facts. There's a reason Brash says that he doesn't "intend to recite a lot of statistics" to make his case: it's because the statistics don't support his case at all. Rather than relying on the facts, he is engaging in dishonest fearmongering.

Are we a more violent society than, say, the United States? Don Brash is certainly trying to create that impression - but a like-for-like comparison of our rates of violent crime, using the same definitions of each offence, shows that our per-capita rate of murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault is around a quarter of that in the Land of the Free:

In 2000, America had more than double the rate of forcible rape per capita than New Zealand, more than three times the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter and robbery than New Zealand per capita, and over four times the rate of aggravated assault per capita than New Zealand. The rate of total violent crime for America in 2000 was 506.1 per 100,000 population; almost four times the rate of 132.6 for New Zealand.
The report notes that we should be cautious when comparing different jurisdictions due to the different ways in which statistics are recorded, but by international standards new Zealand errs on the high side - we count every crime, rather the most serious, and count reports rather than suspects. Unless you believe that the reporting rate for violent crime is between two and four times higher in the US than it is here (and approaches 100% in every category), then the trend is clear: we are far less violent than the US, and not a violent country by international standards.

(Hat-tip to Russell for this link)

So much for international comparisons. But what about our own standards? Firstly, as shown in the graph below, the overall crime rate is at its second-lowest level in fifteen years:


What about the specific examples used by Brash? Family violence? Offences under the Domestic Violence Act have remained constant over the last four years. Random killings? The murder rate fluctuates significantly from year to year - 2003 was a low, with only 46 murders; 2002 was a high, with 66 - but the overall trend has remained constant, as has that for homicide (murder plus manslaughter) in general. Brutal muggings? Robberies have been up the last two years, but are still about the same as they were in 2000, and lower than in 1998. Homicidal drunk drivers? As can be seen from the LTSA's statistics, deaths and injuries in alcohol-related crashes have decreased significantly.

As a caveat to the above, violent crime - assaults and intimidation - is up - but not substantially so, and certainly not sufficiently to justify the level of public panic. It hasn't doubled; it hasn't even increased by 10%. Instead, the last three years have been up by around 6% over the post-1994 average. If we take a longer view, then rates of violent crime have increased since the 80's - and the culprit is fairly clear. It's no accident that the baseline jumped 50% in the early 90's, when "screw the poor" policies had produced massive social dislocation and poverty and created an underclass. Like so many of the problems in modern New Zealand society, the current high trend rate of violent crime (compared with the 80's) can be laid squarely at the feet of Ruth Richardson and Roger Douglas.

And as a caveat to the caveat, our violent crime statistics do not include sexual offences such as rape and sexual assault. They're down - at their third lowest level in fifteen years. New Zealand is certainly a safer place for women and children than it was last year, or five years ago (when sexual offending was 25% higher than it is now). The crimes ordinary people are most likely to be victims of - burglary and car theft - are both down significantly, as are dishonesty offences in general. Contrary to Brash's assertions, you are not more likely to be a victim of crime now that you were last year, or five years ago.

What about the claim that nothing is being done about crime? Hardly. Over the past five years, the government has responded to falling crime rates with harsher sentences and increased use of preventative detention. And on a more everyday level, clearance rates - the percentage of crimes resolved by police - are up across the board. In the case of burglaries and car thefts, they're up significantly (the clearance rate for burglary jumped by 50% in 2000 and has stayed up since). The police are "doing something".

So, where does this leave Brash? I would say that it rather reduces the "urgent" need for his policy prescriptions. But it also once again exposes his tendency to disregard the facts when they are inconvenient. Like the infamous Orewa speech, his law and order address is aimed at creating and manipulating public perceptions and public fear. The Orewa speech made sweeping claims about "Maori privilege" and "race-based policies", based of course on "what we all know" and "what we see on TV" - and when the underlying facts were examined, those claims turned out to be (to use the technical term) bullshit. This is more of the same. Don Brash isn't interested in discussing crime with an eye to extracting sensible policy options which will address the problem; he is interested in stirring up public fear to get votes. It was despicable when he did that with race relations; here it is merely dishonest.

(Appendix: If you want to look at the underlying facts, check out the police crime statistics. The reports include historical data, and I've used the 2000 and 2003 reports to compile 15 year trend info here (Excel 97 format). Longer-term data is available from Statistics New Zealand).