Tackling crime in New Zealand


We have seen the news on the television often enough – a dairy being held up by touths who make off with cash and cigarettes; methamphetamine making businesses busted; someone murdered. We have had our moment of rage at the offender – and possibly the justice system for other reasons – sympathized with the family of the victims. Some of us might have gone on to social media and vented. But having released our anger and shown appropriate sympathy, what do we as New Zealanders do next to tackle crime?

For a lot of people it ends there. They change the subject, or go find something constructive to do like help their kid with homework or put the washing on the line and why not?

But not for all. I am one. For me if it is the latest in a string of incidents, it might inspire me to write a blog article such as this one about tackling crime. Or if there is public law changes open for submission on something related to reducing criminal offending, I will look at the documents available at the Parliament submissions web page and see if it is something I am interested in making a submission to.

My reasoning is simple: to make New Zealand as good as it can be I need to have an active involvement in the available processes that allow public input into policy making.

I think New Zealanders are not where either National or Labour would want to place them on justice and criminal offending.I see a number of separate groupings of people in terms of the approach New Zealand should take in dealing with crime:

  1. There is a significant portion of the population that want tighter sentencing. They look to people like National leader Simon Bridges or Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesperson Garth McVicar for leadership, expecting them to advocate for tougher sentencing laws. I am not in that group. This group would have supported the proposed large prison at Waikeria, southwest of Te Awamutu.
  2. There is another group built around Labour and the Greens, which advocate for reform. They want to see the number of prisoners decrease, which I think most New Zealanders probably do, but taking a softly-softly approach on prisoners by looking at their mental health and backgrounds. I am not in this group, though some of their ideas are good.
  3. I think I belong to a third group that wants to examine whether current “system” – prisons, justice, and Police – are working as they should. My impression is that the justice system is failing to make full use of the range of sentencing ordnance it has at its disposal; that a lot of crime would stop if we permitted medicinal cannabis and banned synthetic cannabis.

But how do we tackle crime? A lot of the existing crime in New Zealand is for a purpose – serious crimes such as stealing cigarettes to order for the black market or drug smuggling, manufacturing to pay bills and/or drug debts can be put down to filling a need. Vandalism, attacks on people might be for the thrill of attacking in a violent or destructive way.

An ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach is only helpful in dealing with all those already in prison (9,000 plus) is the best way of describing the current mentality in terms of constructing prisons here.. It fails to deal with those who might be out of prison, are otherwise clean and are trying to deal with the next phase in life – re-establishing oneself as a person. This group are particularly vulnerable as they might have lost their social networks, will be out of a job and not be likely to have much if any money. They are also potentially the most dangerous because a failure to catch quickly means a reversion back to their criminal past might be more likely than people will admit.

Per the idea of an ambulance being best at the top of the cliff, the gains for society by identifying those with criminal pasts and seeking to address the issues that made them start committing crime in the first place is a major deal. Some might come from broken families where no respect for the law was instilled in people. Others might might have come from backgrounds involving narcotics and dabbled in it, found it too powerful to ignore and got dragged under.

Whatever the case, examining how such circumstances can lead to criminal offending and seeking to address them using research based policy is the way forward. If we stop deluding ourselves about how well the “system” works – or does not work.

Three strikes law on its third strike


Minister of Justice Andrew Little has announced his intention to scrap the notorious “Three Strikes” legislation in New Zealand that was introduced by the previous National-led Government. The law change, which is intended to address the soaring rate of incarceration in New Zealand, has been met with a guarded response with some wondering what would replace it; others bemoaning its impending demise; still more quietly welcoming it.

And almost immediately, the National Party announced that it would immediately reinstate any such laws, immediately showing a classic case of reactionary politics, whilst failing to supply an adequate explanation.

I personally support the repeal. When I first heard about it just before the 2008 election, I thought such sentencing power would make prisoners think twice for committing their offences. A decade later and I have swung 180º and concluded that it needs to go.

For example let us suppose a person was involved in a car jacking and then an armed robbery, within a short space of time. Several years later during which time no other criminal activity happens Person A is caught breaking into a car. Because of his prior offences Person A is immediately sentenced to 25 years jail. Such a case happened one time a couple of decades ago in Washington State, where

Whilst on the count of two violent crimes and a lesser crime Person A should have already gone to jail, sending Person A to jail for 25 years using the third crime as a trigger is disproportionately severe. Why? Because thousands of cars are stolen every year and many of the perpetrators are not caught. But also a relatively minor crime does not justify occupying a prison cell for 25 years – save that for a murderer, or some other serious offender. Reparation to the victim, plus paying for any damage repairs and a month in home detention should be adequate.

At the other end of the scale, one might argue that due to a well noted inability and/or unwillingness of the judges of New Zealand to send criminals to jail and having a Parole Board that often makes incorrect decisions, does not assist the course of justice. New Zealand judges are notorious for making weak judgements in cases where either a top of the range fine and/or a lengthy spell in prison was the expectation of the New Zealand public when they examine the case.

There are good reasons to replace the Three Strikes law in New Zealand.

  1. The evidence from overseas is that it does not work – assaults in some places have increased because prisoners doing mandatory life prison time for serious offences know they are going to be in jail for the rest of their lives, so what do they have to lose from attacking a police officer or prison warden?
  2. The judge is supposed to be the one exercising discretion in the court house – how is making them hand down a mandatory life sentence for a third serious offence when reasonable law might justify only 10 years jail?
  3. Why are we copying the United States? Since when did American criminal law work effectively in New Zealand – Three Strikes is a quintessential American law. What is so hard about New Zealand law written by and for New Zealanders?
  4. The cost! We cannot afford a multi-billion dollar mega prison when the way the law is currently structured the rate of jailing is at an all time high.

So, I welcome Mr Little’s announcement. However I think I fit in best with the group of New Zealanders wondering what would replace it. Simply repealing it because it is an A.C.T. Party piece of legislation  is not enough and smacks of ideology. But will Mr Little enact the necessary wider ranging reform that is needed? It remains to be seen.

The case for an overhaul of New Zealand’s prisons


It was mentioned yesterday that overcrowding in New Zealand prisons is bringing the penal system to breaking point. Whilst New Zealand does not have the large scale problems of the United States and other countries, the problems posed by the prison system as it currently stands are plenty bad enough.

One can break prisoners down into several groups. There will be a small group whose offending are a symptom of larger problems in their lives – addictions that wound up needing a new source of income to fund their lifestyle, which might have started off as a minor experiment that eventually became all consuming. The range of backgrounds from which these people come might be quite varied, with some coming from normal or relatively normal backgrounds whilst others

If these people can be made to see the harm they are doing and shown how to get help, they might have a future. Acknowledging what they have done is central to the assistance that they get.

Many of the offenders who go to prison know that they have committed a significant wrong – whether they admitted it or not is another thing all together. It might have been a spur of the moment thing such as fleeing from the Police and crashing into another vehicle or an argument that for whatever reason suddenly turned injurious or fatal.

Many of these people will be genuinely remorseful. These are the people who are perhaps least likely to re-offend and deserve a second chance. They are the ones who will probably seek restorative justice opportunities with any victims. They are the ones who might be in stable jobs and have supportive families or spouses who will make sure that they stay on track and help them avoid repeating the circumstances that made them commit the offence in the first place.

There will always be a small group of prisoners who no matter what happens to them will re-offend. These are the ones who need to be locked up indefinitely. These are the offenders who have no care for society, no respect for individuals or property. Among these are the ones who offended for the thrill of it and only regret being caught. This is the group that should have no prospect of release.

These offenders have a high risk of re-offending. They pose a significant threat to the community and monitoring them using tracking devices has a high risk of failing.

The solution of “lock ’em up” is clearly not working in many cases. Too many people are going into jail and coming out in a more dangerous psychological state than that in which they entered. Over crowding of cells just creates an environment where those who are genuinely remorseful or otherwise trying to clean themselves up are being negatively affected.

The privatization of the prisons was a particularly bad idea, and using a foreign multinational company (Serco)to run them was even worse as their accountability was nil. Serco should have been sacked as the contracted company once the organized fights in Mt Eden Prison had been exposed.

Furthermore simply building more prisons, the previous National-led Government proposed to do, just adds to a burgeoning penal system that does not necessarily work. Fixing the prisons is just part of the solution, which will require an inter-agency response. No one ministry is capable of fixing this mess on their own. It will require the input of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Police as well as Department of Corrections.

Whether this Government will understand this is one thing. Acting on that recognition is another thing altogether.

How to deter people from fleeing the Police


Mike Yardley, a columnist for The Press wrote a column that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the newspaper. In it he questioned whether people stopped by the cops would run from armed Police. Mr Yardley’s article was provocative. It got me thinking about how to reduce the number of car chases involving the Police, the number of fatalities that occur as a result of these chases.

One thing is clear. Mr Yardley’s suggestion that cops be armed when they check people is flagrant alarmism. New Zealand Police are largely not armed for very good reasons. There is no reason on Earth why we should arm them in a knee jerk fashion without stopping to consider how an already dodgy equation when it comes to being stopped, now suddenly becomes potentially very volatile.

In saying this, I think Mr Yardley might have had another intention in mind. That intention would be to get people thinking about the folly of fleeing the Police, and merely used armed officers as a suggestion because he knew it would get a reaction.

When a Police officer signals for a person to pull over, obviously they should. Most will do so without any problems and co-operate when the officer approaches the car. But there will be a few whose “fight or flight” instincts kick in, and they choose to flee. It could be for any reason or reasons – narcotics, or laundered money might be in the car; the car might be stolen; the car might be sought in relation to another offence; the driver might have someone in it that the Police are looking to arrest.

I have my own solution to the problem. Like Mr Yardley, I was disgusted by the incident that took Mrs Yanko’s life. How to fix the problem? A deterrent needs to be strong enough to make one think twice before engaging in such a silly act. In the end my solution is quite simple. If a person flees from the Police when they are signalled to stop, then – assuming no previous crimes have been committed:

  • Overnight in a cell for a first time offender with a previously clean record and a warning that the next such offence will be a week, plus $1,000 fine
  • For second time offenders a week in the cells plus the $1,000 fine, payable the day they are released
  • For third time offenders, a month in prison plus either $1,000 or 100 hours community service

I should stress – and I do not think I can do this strongly enough – that this is merely dealing with those who flee from the Police. It is not dealing with any other offences outstanding, or which they might be charged for on the day. The punishment for other offences come in on top of this.

It does not matter what sort of stop they were trying to flee from – alcohol/drug check point; search for a criminal or contraband; dangerous driving or otherwise. I wonder how many people would be seriously tempted to flee the Police if they knew that their criminal record – which might, up to that point not exist at all – will get an instant blotch by their name. I wonder how many might have thought of the consequences for their future plans, such as overseas trips and applying for certain types of jobs before they flee the Police

But I think we can agree on one thing now: Running from the Police is a really daft idea that simply is not worth the costs.

The folly of running from the cops


Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Nelson that was completely avoidable. A person in a stolen car made and his companion made the mistake of trying to flee the Police. Unfortunately in doing so, they crossed the centre line at speed in the vehicle and crashed into an oncoming car, killing the innocent driver of the other vehicle as well.

Every year people make the mistake of fleeing from the Police. Sometimes they get away. Sometimes they get caught and sometimes it all ends in tragedy either because the Police continued a chase they later admitted should have been abandoned, or more often, it has been abandoned, but the fleeing vehicle crashes anyway.

So, now, we have three funerals in the early stages of being planned, because one person fled from the Police.

Common sense as well as Police orders require anyone signalled by the Police to stop, to do so. Police admitted last year that about 300 fleeing driver incidents happened a month or about 10 a day; 3650 a year.

I believe that a few potential causes for such behaviour exist and that they need to be acted on:

  • Under funding the traffic cops to monitor peoples behaviour on the roads. The division of the Police dedicated to the roads was wound up under the National led Government of Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
  • The absence of an effective deterrent may make people think that all they will be given is the equivalent of a wet bus ticket slapped on their wrist with no consequences
  • Parental responsibility needs more legal emphasis on it – parents need to make sure their youngsters understand that running from the cops is just going to make it worse for them when they get caught

There are steps that can be taken. Every person undertaking driving instruction should at some point be made to attend a defensive driving course and as a part of that, sit a test that demonstrates knowledge of defensive driving. As part of that course, a Police officer should talk to the participants and explain to them their legal responsibilities and what will happen if they are not upheld.

Another step is radically tightening the deterrent. I suggest automatic loss of their driver licence for a year or one month in jail. Given the gravity with which society views people who have done jail time and/or lost their licence for traffic offences, the decline of their social status, this will – if made clear to all New Zealanders – make the vast majority think twice before committing such a daft act. Those that don’t are the ones the proverbial book should be thrown at.