Jarrod Gilbert: Why we need to rethink our approach to tackling crime

There is much to be debated about the Covid strategy that New Zealand has employed, but one thing we can universally acknowledge is that we sought a preventative approach. And that approach to Covid ought be the one we employ to crime.

The current thrusts of policies targeting serious or persistent crime occur after the incidents of crime have occurred, through the prosecution and punishment of the offender and, subsequent to that, attempts at rehabilitation and reintegration.

While managing the aftermath of criminality is an important element of criminal justice, a reimagining of this process to focus more strongly on prevention of crime is appealing. If crime can be prevented, this means there are fewer victims, and that the current targets of spending on crime after the fact would of course be reduced.

It would also mean that the overall health of our society – socially and economically – would improve.

An example of the problem is reflected in our expenditure on family and sexual violence. In 2015, the Government was spending more than $1.4 billion annually on addressing family and sexual violence (estimated to be $2b now), yet just 1.5 per cent of this was spent on prevention.

In short, we have been spending enormous amounts after the crime, but scant little to prevent it.

Furthermore, the spending after the fact is hardly winning trophies. Overall recidivism rates are high; particularly among young people. Nearly three-quarters of young people who spend time in prison are convicted of a new crime within two years of being released. This is because efforts at rehabilitation are notoriously difficult.

Data on the outcome of prison programmes in New Zealand show that their impacts are modest. Research by the Department of Corrections shows that its best serious violence rehabilitation programme reduces reoffending by between four and 13 per cent.

Once people are set in ways, it’s very hard to change them. And if we look at the issues that people in prison have, we find areas that clearly need addressing; many of which are entirely preventable or could at least be mitigated.

Seventy per cent of prisoners have serious literacy problems, 90 per cent have or have had mental illness or addiction, and nearly half suffered violence as a child.

The people in prison are not a cross-section of New Zealand society, they are made up of people with terrible problems, many of which were afforded them merely by the bad luck of their birth. To ignore that is to ignore the drivers of abhorrent behaviour, and in doing so we will never find a preventative approach to crime.

The Labour Government is open to a preventative approach, but its welcomed efforts – for example around family violence – are modest and hardly involve the reimagining required.

Under the direction of Bill English, National had developed a rather strong – albeit poorly publicised – agenda for prevention, but it was far from clear how well it was supported by the rank-and-file MPs.

I wait with great interest to see where National’s new leader Christopher Luxon sits on such matters and, indeed, on crime and justice generally. Far too often opposition policies on crime tend to be populist and seek votes rather than real solutions, but I hope he bucks that trend.

Few would argue that a preventative approach is not desirable – albeit there will be significant disagreement on how it would be done – yet even broad discussions around moving in this direction are all too scant.

One reason for this is the politics around it. Such an approach will take a long-term view, which is something of an anathema to politicians seeking quick wins. Another reason is that, unlike Covid, crime is not new and we aren’t bringing contemporary thinking to the problem.

We are stuck with bureaucratic structures and systems that have been built over a long period of time. If we could start from scratch, nobody would design the system we have now. But it’s the system we’ve got. If we don’t begin to imagine another way, we may experience minor successes, but genuine breakthroughs will escape us.

When most people are seeking answers for crime, they think of incarceration. And that’s okay, we will always require that as a tool, but we need to turn our collective thinking away from prison and toward the goal of prevention.

There is a better way. It’s up to us to recognise it and begin the conversation on realising it.

• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the Director of Independent Research Solutions.

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