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Lock 'em up - we don't care about the cost

Sunday 20 November 2011, 11:05AM

TV reviewer Gordon Brown has written an extraordinary opinion piece in the Taranaki Daily News titled ‘Make the criminals pay’. This is in response to an article in the Sunday Star Times about Roger Brooking's new book, Flying Blind, with the headline: 'Prisoners need therapy' .  Mr Brown claims that "ordinary New Zealanders want to feel safe and the only way for that to happen is to resource the police so they can do the job properly." He also wants to impose tougher sentences on those who end up in prison.

Mr Brown takes umbrage with Mr Brooking who points out that 80% of all crime in New Zealand occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs and that the best way to reduce reoffending is to establish specialised drug courts, provide additional funding for addiction treatment and establish more halfway houses in the community.

Mr Brown disagrees with the arguments in Flying Blind – although clearly he has not bothered to read it. If he had, he might have picked up on a few facts about community safety.

1) Crime Rates: New Zealand already is a safe society. Crime has been on the decline since the 1990s and the murder rate has halved over the last 20 years. Even the projected need for prison beds has begun to decline for the first time in 50 years.

2) International comparisons: For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the global peace index out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 different indicators including crime rates, violence, corruption, military spending and others factors. In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations (out of 159 countries) in terms of human development - based on indicators about life expectancy, schooling, income, economic and political freedoms.

3) Role of the Media: Perceptions of community safety have more to do with the media than they do with the police. A study from 2002 into the role of the media's coverage of crime reported: "the selective and disproportionate media coverage of crime, particularly violence, when set alongside actual police statistics, raises questions of skewed reporting in New Zealand at a time when crime rates are falling."

When respondents to these surveys were asked where they get the information about crime, they said ‘from the media’. When journalists are asked the same question, they admit they generally rely on a farmer, Garth McVicar, for comment about the failings of our justice system.

4) Distorted perceptions of safety: As a result, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. Between 2006 and 2009 International surveys found that only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This puts us on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon (where 56% feel safe), Iran (55%) and former Communist states like Albania (54%). In the United States where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe.

In other words, perceptions of safety in New Zealand have been so skewed by the media, these perceptions are no longer based on reality. What this suggests is that we don’t need more police to improve public safety. What we need is more honest journalism and less scaremongering by the likes of Garth McVicar, right wing politicians and TV commentators like Gordon Brown - who claims to represent the silent majority.

The 'silent majority' not so silent

Unfortunately, the so-called silent majority has not been silent at all. On the contrary, they've been very vociferous. This uninformed, lock ‘em up brigade has dominated the New Zealand media for the last 20 years – leading to a competition between National and Labour to be tough on crime. Victoria University criminologist Prof John Pratt describes it as a process of political populism - facilitated by the media.

Where has this competition to be tough on crime got us? The answer is - into a financial black hole. The last Labour Government built four new prisons at a cost of over $1 billion. National has already built one new prison at Mt Eden and is planning another at Wiri - estimated to cost over $400 million. As a result, the Corrections Department is about to become the biggest government department in the country. Altogether, Justice Sector costs are estimated at around $5 billion a year.

Annual cost of crime equals one Christhcurch earthquake

That's equivalent to the cost of one decent sized earthquake in Christchurch - except that this earthquake of crime occurs year, after year, after year. Rebuilding Christchurch is draining enough without having to pay for the criminal liquifaction shaking up the Justice Sector every single year.

In other words, ‘lock up and throw away the key’ is a financially disastrous, ineffective and short-sighted approach to dealing with crime - especially when New Zealand is facing the biggest deficit in its history.

Mr Brown says he wants to ‘make the criminals pay’. But this $5 billion cost is imposed on the New Zealand taxpayer – not the criminals. One has to wonder why people like Garth McVicar and Gordon Brown are so keen to drive the New Zealand justice system into this financial black hole? The answer to that question was provided in Mr Brown's opinion piece. He wrote: “We (just) don't care”.  The fact that so many New Zealanders don't seem to care is why the justice system is Flying Blind