Crime at an all time low - but we still need another prison

Wednesday 3 October 2012, 9:52AM

New Zealand's crime rate has dropped to an all-time low. Official figures released this week show that crime has dropped for the third year in a row. In 2010, the number of murders in New Zealand dropped by nearly a quarter over the previous year (from 65 to 46), while overall reported crime fell 6.7%.  In 2011, New Zealand's recorded crime rate was at its lowest in 15 years, down another 5.6% on the figures from 2010. In 2012 (financial year), the crime rate dropped another 5.9%  on the previous year - taking into account an increase in the population of 0.7%. Homicide and related offending dropped by 21.5%.

The total number of offences in 2012 was the lowest since 1989 - the lowest crime rate per head of population since the introduction of electronic records. There's no doubt about it - crime is down - and the rate  has been dropping since the turn of the century.

There has been much speculation about the cause of the turnaround. Judith Collins would have us believe it’s all due to better policing and her Government's "get tough" policies, including the draconian three strikes law.  That doesn't add up - because the decrease began long before National came to power. Victoria University criminology professor John Pratt would have us believe it’s all due to demographics. His point is that young people commit the most crime but New Zealand has an aging population.  That makes more sense, but no doubt there are many factors involved.

Distorted perceptions of crime

Whatever the cause and despite this dramatic drop in the figures, many New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. A Ministry of Justice study in 2003 found that 83% of New Zealanders held inaccurate and negative views about crime levels in society and 'wrongly believed' that crime was increasing. A more recent study in 2009 by Dr Michael Rowe, also from Victoria University, found an overwhelming public belief that crime has got worse despite New Zealand's murder rate dropping by almost half in the past 20 years.

Reflecting the depth of these misperceptions, between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This means that despite reductions in crime, and despite our international standing as a peaceful country, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). New Zealand is also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55%) and Lebanon (56%) and African countries such as Angola (53%), Nigeria (51%) and Uganda (51%)

Many of these misperceptions comes from the so-called sensible sentencing trust which has been contributing to Kiwis'  fear of crime for over ten years.  Spokesperson Ruth Money was interviewed on TV3’s Firstline last week supporting Judith Collins decision to reduce parole hearings for prisoners who refuse to accept their guilt, or make little effort at rehabilitation. Let’s get real about this. The reality is that it’s the Corrections Department that makes little effort at rehabilitation. They refused to put Stewart Murray Wilson into a programme for sex offenders – and then blamed him for not attending.

And let’s not forget that more than 20,000 Kiwis end up in prison every year –  90% with alcohol and drug problems.  But only 1,000 prisoners a year attend treatment for their addictions. A majority of inmates also have poor literacy skills – but the Department’s rehabilitation programmes require the ability to read and write.  Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime and Punishment makes the point like this:  “Sentencing judges and the Parole Board can give directions for a prisoner to undergo a course of rehabilitation, only to find that Corrections cannot provide it. In the worse cases, the unavailability of rehabilitation affects the offender’s chances of parole.”

Sensible sentencing?

This is bizarre. The Government is willing to spend $900 million building a 960 bed prison at Wiri - even though there are currently 1,600 empty beds in the prison system - rather than provide more programmes and put more prisoners into them.  Crime is down for the third year in a row - and has been dropping since 2000 - but for some reason we need another prison and less parole board hearings. This is sensible sentencing? Yeah right!