Lock Them Up: Kiwis simply rebel at the idea of being driven blindly by forces they cannot control. Nor will they accept the pain and suffering of their neighbours as statistically inevitable. Shit may happen – but that doesn’t mean the ratbags who make it happen should be allowed to escape the consequences of their actions.
THE TWO BIG QUESTIONS when it comes to crime and punishment, law and order, are: “Why do people commit crimes?” And: “What should we do with them when they do?” On how a majority of voters answers those two questions will depend the overall thrust and purpose of New Zealand’s criminal justice and correction systems.
The answer given by most New Zealanders to the first question is simple and direct enough to make sociologists, psychologists and criminologists wince: “Because they are bad people.” The public’s response to the second question, as unequivocal as the first, is: “Lock them up.”
The professionals like their compatriots’ answer to the second question even less than the first.
Their explanations for criminal offending are multifaceted and complex – as are their recommendations for what do about it.
In practical political terms, however, the complexity of the problem is the professionals’ worst enemy.
Sociologists, psychologists and criminologists are trained to view criminal behaviour scientifically, as a series of predictable responses to a range of exhaustively researched and clearly identifiable stimuli. Look into the background of just about any criminal, they argue, and you will find at least one, and in many cases, all of the following causal factors: acute parental inadequacy; childhood trauma; interrupted schooling; functional illiteracy; intermittent employment; substance abuse and/or addiction and mental illness.
Criminal behaviour, driven by these causal factors, they argue, is almost impossible to prevent. Their reasoning presents the criminal as a helpless cork tossed about on a wild torrent of malign environmental forces over which he or she exercises no control whatsoever. By this reading, criminals are not bad people. They are, rather, people who’ve had bad luck.
That being the case, the mission of the criminal justice and correction systems should have just two principal objectives. First: to protect the rest of society from further harm by identifying, apprehending and then isolating the most serious criminal offenders in specialised institutions. Second: to initiate rehabilitative measures designed to eliminate the worst manifestations of each individual offender’s dysfunctional personal history.
The great problem with this approach is that it regards the victims of crimes committed by serious offenders in much the same way as military commanders regard the death and injury visited upon non-combatants during military operations: they are “collateral damage”. Contemporary society, like contemporary warfare, runs this argument, cannot avoid generating an irreducible amount of carnage. Inevitably, there will be people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is sad, but it is also unavoidable.
All of which may be true, but for most New Zealanders it simply will not do. The pain and suffering inflicted by serious criminal offending cannot be shrugged-off with an academically tricked-out version of “shit happens”.
The essence of the New Zealand character is embodied in the idea that individual Kiwis make their own luck. Every New Zealander knows someone who, through sheer grit and determination, has risen above the terrible circumstances of their upbringing and made something of themselves. Who did it on their own. And if people are able to do good on their own, then it stands to reason that they must also be able to do evil on their own. It’s why New Zealanders’ patience with social, psychological and criminological science is so notoriously thin. Kiwis simply rebel at the idea of being corks. Nor will they accept the pain and suffering of their neighbours as statistically inevitable. Shit may happen – but that doesn’t mean the ratbags who make it happen should be allowed to escape the consequences of their actions.
New Zealand’s new Justice Minister, Andrew Little, persuaded by the professionals, has set his face against his fellow citizens’ answers to the questions of crime and punishment, law and order. He has looked at the burgeoning number of people incarcerated in our jails, and he is saying that it simply will not do.
He does not want to press ahead with the planned billion-dollar, 3,000-bed super-prison at Waikeria. He and his party would rather reduce New Zealand’s prison muster by 30 percent.
The lawyer in him rebels against the idea that our current bail laws have remanded upwards of 3,000 Kiwis – all of them innocent until proven guilty – to months after soul-destroying months in custody.
The professionals are cheering him on. They want him to put in place a criminal justice and correction system guided by the scientific evidence – not the atavistic urges of the public.
Alas for Mr Little and the professionals, the questions of crime and punishment, law and order, are only rarely resolved through reasoned and dispassionate discussion. Like the Almighty, in Book of Genesis, the electorate demands answers from the Cains who live among them:
“What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 February 2018.