Now for crime action that really counts

Judith Collins trumpeted a terrible defeat last week: a record number of people locked up in cells.

This week she detailed another terrible defeat: recorded violence rose 7 per cent in the year to June, driven by a 13.5 per cent rise in family violence.

Her response to family violence? “It is time we got serious about stamping out this problem by offering more protection to victims and ensuring offenders were punished for their crimes.”

More in prison for longer. Another record next year. Another terrible defeat.

Collins’ response has been the response of governments since Labour discovered, using the then novel political research mechanism of focus groups, that if it promised to “rub out the crim” it would neutralise crime as an issue in the 1987 election.

After the 1996 election Helen Clark gave Mike Moore, Phil Goff and George Hawkins the nod to run a tough law and order line. In government she stuffed prisons to bursting point — to the point where she had to look for ways of getting prisoners out though home detention, earlier parole and the like.

National in government made a top priority of eight laws by Simon Power to toughen criminal law and treatment of criminals.

New Zealand is now the proud custodian of a reputation for the second highest rich-country ratio of prisoners to population. Goff and Clark did that. Collins and Power are right on cue.

It doesn’t work.

Of course, locking someone up means that person can damage only other prisoners, the guards and himself or herself and not the law-abiding populace.

Moreover, doing a wrong — a tort — to someone else is disruptive and nasty. The country logically considers such wrongs a harm to society and punishes them. Logically, too, the punishment would be commensurate with the harm.

And rehabilitating and making restitution to victims is a social good. Power’s tough words on that score have resonated. For too long the state considered the tort of violence to be a tort only against the state.

But the lesson from the past 40 years here and in other lock-em-up jurisdictions — notably the way-out-in-front leader, the United States — is that putting more people in prison doesn’t stop crime. Britain discovered that in the nineteenth century when it stuffed felons into hulks on the Thames.

Here the crime rate has got worse. Why? One factor, as noted here a couple of weeks back, is an eerie correlation in rich countries between the degree of socioeconomic inequality and the incidence of crime. New Zealand is one of the most unequal of all rich countries.

An more unequal society — one in which a high number are or feel trapped at the bottom — is likely to generate more of the interacting conditions out of which crime grows. Stir in a police focus for the past century on responding to and solving crimes and apprehending and jailing criminals at the expense of, as Commissioner Howard Broad proposes, lower-key action that promotes peace in neighbourhoods and the “body count” keeps rising.

That is why Power, having done his tough-guy duty in John Key’s first 100 days, called a day-long “drivers of crime” seminar in early April to pinpoint action to head off crime and criminals.

He commissioned a keynote presentation from Otago University professor Richie Poulton, who has hard facts and figures from his world-renowned study of the impact of bad childhoods on later-life addiction, mental illness, alienation from society and eventually crime. The seminar produced many suggestions for fixing parenting, education, mental health treatment and crime-inducing neighbourhoods.

So what has nice-guy liberal Power done about that in the six months since? After all, in August he said he is a man of action, not strategies.

Well, he trumpeted $1 billion in the budget, all get-tough stuff. He is busy reforming the laws on liquor which he characterised this week as a “lubricant” rather than a driver.

He thumped the Chief Justice for a thoughtful speech on prison’s failure as a reformatory and suggesting alternatives similar to those advocated by Britain’s Lord Chief Justice. He offered no criticism of the Principal Youth Court Judge’s call for tougher liquor laws and dealings with young offenders.

None of that went near the “drivers” of crime. So where is the “action”?

The short answer is: with the social sector departmental chief executives and with other ministers. Power expects to be announcing action in a month to six weeks on four priority areas. One is alcohol but he won’t say what the others are except that they involve across-government coordination and that he insists on being able to measure the outcomes.

It is a start — and if it shifted the bipartisan consensus from lock-em-up to tackling the “drivers”, it will be an enviable political epitaph.

But will Power’s colleagues have the stomach for the large costs and multi-term wait for a return on investment? If not, Collins and successors will likely have plenty more defeats to announce.