Friday 12 February 2010

Political Victims

"Crusher Collins": Trapped in her persona of the "tough" Corrections Minister, Judith Collins cannot now step back from the deeply flawed law and order policies of the National-led Government.

CAN JUDITH COLLINS be rehabilitated? Or is the Minister of Corrections an incorrigible ideological recidivist who should be locked away forever?

The questions are, of course, facetious. Collins is an intelligent and caring woman, whose private face bears scant resemblance to the fierce political mask of "Crusher Collins" – that steely-eyed, thin-lipped avatar of conservative New Zealand’s growing preoccupation with victims’ rights.

"The public expects the system – first and foremost – to punish those who have broken the law", writes Collins in a think-piece published last Wednesday in The New Zealand Herald. "Punishment for serious crime in the majority of cases should be harsh, because anything less fails to acknowledge that victims of crime are never truly released from their sentence."

Rhetorical red meat of this sort has become standard fare for Collins. Like the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar, and ACT’s David Garrett, she long ago mastered the art of lubricating the man-eating machinery of the New Zealand prison system with the tears of its inhabitants’ victims.

Her defence of the Government’s new "Three Strikes" policy, for example, relies for its impact not on solid research or sound reasoning, but on "a letter from a very courageous woman" whose 15-year-old daughter was murdered in "a brutal attack". The awful experiences of Collins’ correspondent, and the outrage and horror they evoke, effectively forestall any serious criticism of the Minister’s argument. Who would be insensitive enough to chop logic with someone acting on behalf of a mother whose daughter had been stabbed, strangled and sexually violated?

But, when did it become acceptable for a Minister of the Crown to use the victims of crime as human-shields against the critical scrutiny of government policy? And how did it become "okay" for politicians to render any dispassionate assessment of that policy impossible by admitting to the discussion all the overwhelming emotions associated with violent death and inconsolable human loss? What sort of politics is this?

The very worst kind. Because conservative politicians compound their cynical exploitation of human grief by directing the intense emotion it inevitably evokes against their ideological opponents.

"In this country we have many people who have made a thriving industry out of making excuses for criminals", writes Collins. "In the past decade these people have overwhelmed the debate on law and order with their views on the rights of offenders."

A thriving industry? To what and to whom is the Minister referring? The legal profession? The probation service? University departments conducting research into the causes and consequences of criminal offending? NGOs and religious organisations helping offenders make the transition from "inside" to "outside"? Who are these thriving industrialists?

And what is Collins suggesting? That citizens accused of a crime should not be entitled to legal representation? That no one should ever be encouraged (let alone funded) to ask why young men murder young women? Is she seriously suggesting that all attempts to ease offenders safely back into society are misguided?

Unfortunately, the Minister doesn’t say – so let us examine the one specific claim that she does make: that for the past ten years the advocates of "the rights of offenders" have "overwhelmed" the law and order debate.

Is this a true statement? No, it isn’t. In fact, the situation in New Zealand is the exact opposite of what the Minister is claiming. Over the course of the past ten years – no, let’s be honest, over the past thirty years – the trend in all the English-speaking countries has been towards harsher penalties, longer sentences and diminished legal protections for those accused of serious crimes.

This is particularly true of New Zealand, where, for most of the past decade, both of the major political parties have engaged in a bidding war to determine who could come up with the most draconian responses to violent crime. It began with Norm Withers’ "Law & Order" Citizens Initiated Referendum" – carried overwhelmingly at the General Election of 2002. Mr Withers’ success put paid to what little remained of the liberal Minister of Corrections, Matt Robson’s, doomed attempt to align New Zealand’s penal policies with international best practice.

And, on every dismal, descending step of this new law-and-order staircase our politicians were shadowed by the "if it bleeds it leads" news media. So potent (and profitable) has the depiction of serious criminal offending become, that our journalists see little merit in alerting their readers, listeners or viewers to the statistical facts of New Zealand’s declining crime-rate. Instead, reporters and politicians became inextricably entwined in a dangerously symbiotic double-act: the former whipping the voters into a vengeful frenzy; the latter doing their best to appease the resulting bloodlust.

The true flowering of liberal penology actually came in the 1960s and 70s when, at the height of the "historic compromise" between capital and labour, and the social revolution it precipitated, English-speaking politicians, inspired by the compassionate social-democracies of Northern Europe, attempted to shift the policy focus away from primitive retribution (the Old Testament’s "eye-for-an-eye") towards a more humane emphasis on offender rehabilitation and a getting-to-grips with the socio-economic and cultural generators of criminal behaviour.

Not surprisingly, Collins is unwilling to acknowledge any of this. To do so would be to place the artificially induced clamour for a more punitive corrections regime in the broader historical context of the New Right’s counter-offensive against the redistributive welfare state and all its works.

In this context, not even Tony Blair’s rhetorically brilliant "tough on crime – tough on the causes of crime" is acceptable. But, if the second part of Blair’s slogan must be jettisoned, conservative politicians must have something else to mask the unrelenting bleakness of their ultimate "solution": constantly rising levels of incarceration in a privatised prison system.

The answer, of course, is to shift the political focus from the perpetrators to the victims of crime. No matter that this policy effectively reverses the centuries-old tradition of treating crime as an act against the State. No matter that it makes the calm and impartial administration of justice increasingly problematic. The relentless focus on victims, by making rationality redundant, and turning evidence-driven humanitarians into criminal enablers, provides a perfect cover.

"Time and again," writes Collins, "victims of crime have told me they feel let down by a system that seems to put greater emphasis on the rights of offenders than victims."

Not any more.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 4 February 2010.

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