Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Tough on crime" isn't working

Today the Herald reported on a speech by Chief Justice Sian Elias to the Wellington branch of the Law Society, in which she suggested an amnesty to reduce prison numbers and so avoid "significant safety and human rights issues". In the subsequent and predictable howl of outrage from the right and denial by the government, the real message of her speech was lost: that the present "tough on crime" approach of harsher and more punitive sentences and limited access to bail and parole simply is not working.

The full speech is here [PDF]. I suggest reading it in full. There is a lot of good stuff in there about how the increased involvement of victims is undermining justice and turning sentencing into "a test of [loyalty] and a mark of personal respect" for victims, about the utter ineffectiveness of prison in reducing crime rates, about the failure of non-custodial sentences due to government under-resourcing, and the need to reduce crime and reoffending by targeting its actual causes (including the high rates of mental illness and substance abuse among prisoners) rather than by building a prison at the bottom of the cliff. She also talks about solutions to this: not least, politicians having the honesty to front up to the public and tell them that vengeance and brutality does not work and never has.

Channelling public anxiety into effective strategies is not easy when the first task is to get across the unwelcome message that there are no simple or quick answers. And it is difficult for the public and political debate to be properly informed in an age where our news and comment is geared to simple messages and the stories of individual crimes are readily and graphically communicated. But if we are not to lurch from one increasingly punitive and expensive reaction to another, we all need to take responsibility for understanding the options and for buying in to the strategies that work, rather than knee-jerk responses. Those strategies require social change, not demands for easy quick fixes now...


Information the community needs to know has to be got across. The message that imprisonment does not reduce crime, that the criminal justice processes are largely irrelevant to crime reduction and that the causes of crime have to be directly addressed must be communicated and understood.

(The Herald's response to her speech rather proves her point, and exacerbates the problem rather than helping us solve it. But I guess real solutions - and the reduction in crime they would entail - don't sell newspapers.)

The solutions Elias suggests are not easy: early intervention to prevent kids from turning into criminals; a more active and better resourced probation service with a focus on personal involvement and rehabilitation rather than risk-management to reduce reoffending; proper mental health services, both in and out of jail, to prevent prison being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and finally, reducing prison numbers through better use of bail, parole and community sentencing - and amnesties if necessary - because it costs an absolute fortune and doesn't do anyone any good.