Who Do You Love? The battle over crime and punishment is largely determined by who emerges from the debate as the primary recipients of New Zealanders' empathy. Do we focus our emotions on the victims of crime, or on rescuing the perpetrators from the circumstances that led them to commit the offences which put them behind bars?
TRYING TO TALK with New Zealanders about crime and punishment is never easy. In our highly punitive culture, people who break the law generally receive very little sympathy from their fellow citizens. For most Kiwis the blunt formula: “you do the crime, you do the time”; is sufficient.
Asking New Zealanders why some people “do the crime” usually elicits an equally blunt explanation. Criminals are “bad bastards” – pure and simple. In vain do reformers point to the offenders’ dysfunctional upbringings: to the violence and abuse that more often than not has surrounded them since birth. The stock rejoinder thrown back in these “do-gooders” faces is: “Look, I know plenty of people who had difficult childhoods, but none of them ever stabbed a dairy-owner or raped and murdered a teenage girl.”
The reformers’ job is made even harder by the ordinary New Zealander’s genuine empathy for the victims of crime. Nothing inflames New Zealand’s “sleepy hobbits” like the handing down of a prison-sentence deemed manifestly inadequate to the severity of the offence.
The name “Sensible Sentencing” captures this phenomenon brilliantly. Conjured-up is the negative image of an over-educated liberal judge who has clearly paid far more attention to the report of some away-with-the-fairies psychiatrist than he has to the impact statements of the victim and/or her family. In the eyes of these citizens, a “sensible” sentence invariably involves locking-up the perpetrator and throwing away the key.
It does no good to point out that putting a bad person in prison almost never results in a better person coming out. “We don’t put them in prison to make them better”, say the sensible sentencers. “We put them inside to give their victims some justice and to keep the rest of us safe.”
Most of the people who say this sort of thing have absolutely no idea what a real prison is like – never having spent so much as a single hour locked-up in a concrete cell. They’ve never experienced the loss of personal liberty. Never been caged. Never faced an endless procession of grey, featureless days punctuated only by shattering displays of human cruelty. Never had to endure emotional and physical pain without the slightest prospect of care or solace.
Ensuring that most people never find out what prison is really like is one of the key objectives of those who seek to profit out of the incarceration of human-beings. For the big corporations behind private prisons, keeping the focus on the victims of crime is crucial.
All parents at one time or another fear for their children’s safety – imagining the very worst when they don’t come home on time. That’s why it’s so easy for them to empathise with those whose loved ones really have been injured or killed. Directing the fear and anger generated by violent crime against its perpetrators and those who defend them is a lot easier than trying to make the public understand what gave rise to the offending in the first place. The very last thing the private prisons lobby want people to say about the person in the dock is: “There, but for the grace of God, goes my son or daughter.” Or, even worse: “That could have been me.”
Keeping the focus away from the grim realities of incarceration also serves those with a vested interest in downplaying the whole question of the rights of accused persons. If people knew what being locked-up was like, then they’d be very careful to ensure that the presumption of innocence was respected and upheld.
It was the famous English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, who said: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” It is perhaps the greatest achievement of New Zealand’s Sensible Sentencing Trust that the present reality of dozens of innocent persons spending months in remand cells for offences they will later be acquitted of does not enrage the New Zealand public. Their motto would appear to be: “It is better that ten innocent people remain locked-up than that one guilty person re-offends on bail.”
In a social climate such as this it is quite pointless to simply enjoin the government of the day to “do the right thing” and empty out the remand prisons, or, to bring forward the parole eligibility for those prisoners convicted of non-violent offences. Were the government to respond positively to such appeals its political opponents would have a field-day. “Look at them!”, the conservative politicians would scream. “They’re letting these criminals walk free!” The inevitable political backlash would almost certainly be fatal.
What’s required is a well-considered and well-funded campaign to bring home the realities of crime and punishment: the conditions that breed offending and the circumstances in which convicted offenders are expected to rehabilitate themselves. Such a campaign should aim to recruit not just lawyers and criminologists, but journalists, novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. Rousing human empathy is as much a mission for the arts as it is for the sciences – maybe even more so.
Watching movies like Twelve Angry Men, Dead Man Walking and The Shawshank Redemption will likely win more converts to the cause of improving our criminal justice system and the prisons it fills than reading lengthy learned articles in academic journals. On the vexed question of New Zealanders’ attitudes towards crime and punishment, reason, unaided by emotion, will never be enough.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 June 2018.