There is a tide in the criminal affairs of men

Anne Tolley cracked the law-and-order whip last week: a lifetime register for child sex offenders. But is the public still enthusiastically for the “Crusher Collins” line on crime?

This question arises as former Police Minister John Banks, drop-in leader of the “three-strikes-and-you’re-in (prison)” ACT party, has gone on media trial on allegations that “anonymous” donations to his 2010 mayoral campaign were known to him, which, if proved, would oust him from Parliament.

Banks’ initial defence was memory failure — he is after all old by John Key’s reckoning that anyone over 65 is by definition superannuated. His memory also evaporated (in parts) over what he had said or not said in the cafe last November when Key enrolled him into Parliament on National’s side.

Back in 2008 Winston Peters had memory problems over big donations, which corroded Helen Clark’s leadership. Back then law-and-order toughie Keys demanded Peters’ head. Up to the time of writing cabinet manager softie Keys had accepted Banks’ assurance of no wrongdoing.

This duality is perhaps a metaphor for public attitudes.

Early in 1987 Labour, in power but behind on law and order, commissioned focus groups, then a novelty in our politics, from which it devised effective “rub out the crim” ads which neutralised the issue in that year’s election.

After Labour’s 28 per cent in the 1996 election, Helen Clark silenced her caucus liberals. She gave Mike Moore, Phil Goff and George Hawkins a brief to go conservative. That, too, neutralised — for a time — Labour’s deficit on the issue in public opinion.

But two comments over the past year or so sparked some synapses. At a conference on crime and punishment a National backbencher said quietly that the beginning of a caucus mood change could be sensed. Then at a Families Commission conference Bill English called prisons a “fiscal and moral failure”.

Around a year ago Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime and Punishment noticed a marked lift in interest in his organisation and others which argue for a less vengeful policy response to crime. A lot more, and different, people turned up to his meetings. There was more interest from organisations in having him and others of like mind speak and the odd report appeared in the news media. A vigorous youth wing, called Just Speak, started a year ago — tonight it launches a report on Maori and the justice system. The Howard League is spreading after a long eclipse — it got a big turnout in Wellington recently. A Justice Coalition of nine non-government organisations, covering a wide spectrum and with more in the wings, is being formed to push reform.

Workman once headed what is now called Corrections. He reckons locking people up doesn’t work, except to the extent that while they are inside they are not committing crimes against good folk (except to the extent they can organise it from inside). Instead, for young people prison can be a crime school, not a reformatory.

There is a precedent: England’s harsh punishments filled Virginia, then Australia, then hulks on the Thames. Crime didn’t stop. It got expensive.

In the United States, the “free” world’s No 1 lockup, tight post-GFC state budgets can’t afford the bulging prison roll-calls accumulated in response to three decades of demands to get tough on law and order and are looking for ways to lighten the cost. In cash-strapped California, inventor of a harsh version of three-strikes, there are now poll majorities for repeal.

Same here, more modestly. English’s fiscal eyes were opened by the invention of a “justice pipeline” which brought together the total costs of police, courts and prisons and their effect on each other. Police policy can add to court costs, courts can add to prison costs and punitive imprisonment can feed people back into police hands.

Actually, the real pipeline stretches much farther each way, back to early childhood and on to post-parole — too long a perspective for now for English. The logic is a switch from just a crime-and-punishment focus to interventions to correct very-early-childhood formative factors, put intensive effort into turning into functional citizens those “at risk” and, post-punishment, to put sustained effort into helping those who can and want to be helped back to citizenship after crime.

That takes us from “fiscal” to “moral”, English’s other “failure”. Again, there are signs of change in the United States. Some states have abolished the death penalty. It helps that crime statistics are falling (as here), which is predictable as the young-to-old ratio drops.

Workman senses similar stirrings of a shift in public sentiment here. It is not a wave — New Zealanders are not about to go soft after decades of hardening. But there may, just possibly, be a trickling turning of the tide. Tolley, for example, is treading carefully with her register.

Who knows, a kinder, cushier Judith Collins and cabinet may be around the corner. Or maybe the corner after that.