Monday 25 June 2018

Emotion, Not Reason, Is Driving New Zealanders’ Attitudes Towards Crime And Punishment.

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.


NickJ said...

Chris, I'm not certain that it is as easy to categorize NZers response to crime as "emotional" as opposed to rational. We can damn Sensible Sentencing but somewhere in the background there are aggrieved victims.

My stance for a long time is that it is pointless to imprison somebody in hope of "reform", my instincts told me that without acceptance of wrongdoing and remorse that the offender would be just as likely to re offend. Locking them away to prevent this made some degree of sense, to punish (again in the absence of remorse and empathy) seemed again pointless.

Since Jordan Peterson "got famous" ( which is a paradox because it has brought forward into the mainstream some very interesting alternate views from people who would normally be ignored on sectarian grounds) I have listened to some snippets of his experience and observation of criminality. He points at some large bodies of accepted empirical studies, especially from a Piagetian angle. Two were real shockers (as in obvious and hidden in plain sight):

1. Boys in particular push boundaries hard before the age of 4, and they need male parenting in particular to inculcate these boundaries to social behavoir. In the absence of learning the limits it is almost impossible to change delinquent behaviors later. If I am hearing this correctly we have a real problem with the absence of fathers and single parent families. Money on prisons or on early childhood support?

2. Men tend to lose the behavoirs that lead to criminality at around 27 years old....not sure why but the re offending rate falls right away according to many more studies. Those who retain the habits are a minority but are the ones we need to concentrate on preventing harm to the rest of society.

I think we need to re frame the debate around real evidence from all sides of the political spectrum because what ever we are doing today is not serving us well.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

One thing we could do is in the war on drugs, treat drugs as a medical problem rather than a criminal problem, and legalise marijuana. The latter is particularly a waste of police time, and it's responsible for far less petty and serious criminal behaviour than the conservative drug of choice alcohol. As a laboratory – called the USA – which we could easily study to see the effects. Or for that matter, Portugal, which is decriminalised all drugs AFAIK. It's way past time to do this.

Geoff Fischer said...

I don't know that medical practitioners really want to be left to deal with the consequences of drug abuse - whether it be from alcohol, tobacco, heroin, marijuana or methamphetamine. They have more than enough to do when dealing with illness and injury. So if we can keep drug abuse problems out of the medical sphere, we should do so. I take a conventional approach: first educate (teach the dangers of drug use); second police (apprehend and punish those who distribute drugs); and third medically treat the ill-effects of drugs (lung cancer and liver disease to addiction, anti-social behaviour and psychosis). Our people have suffered immense harm from drugs ever since the British bought their land and political submission with rum and tobacco, and even though it may seem that the odds are against us, I believe we have to continue to resist all drugs.

greywarbler said...

I think we should be careful of adopting Jordan Peterson's pronouncements. He falls into a group which I have observed that people listen to readily, the characteristics of which include some sort of degree and academic or business background, and an unshakeable belief in their own answers to all that ails humanity.

I think on single mothers - perhaps Celia Lashlie's words on Mothers bringing up sons might have more valid points to make.
"He'll Be Ok: Growing Gorgeous Boys Into Good Men Paperback "

sumsuch said...

You're talking about a stronger democratist government than this one -- prefer Savage's self-denial to Ardern's easy easy career-path depiction. Doesn't represent reality.

The punishment instinct of NZers (shared with Americans) is covered under our unofficial motto 'NZers' sympathy for others is only matched by their suspicion of others'. Why we aren't Scandinavia.

I enjoyed Andrew Little's dismissal of the 'Sensible Sentencing Trust'. Breath of fresh amid the smog the Right prefer. Yes the truth and, what the Left has forgot from the 30s, and the 40 years previous, the necessity to sell, sell, sell. Which unlike capitalists and christians comes from both our brains and our hearts.

Nick J said...

Grey, yes we should be cautious. The reason I mentioned Peterson was because he made his statements unlike so many by referencing the evidence and did not claim it as his own, except that he often says that it lines up with many years observation as a front line practicing clinical psychologist. On that note he is not the only contrarian I listen to, because of our echo chamber media I actively seek these people out and judge them on what they really can attest to.

And that is where Celia Lashlie is so good as well, it is based upon front line experience. I read it when published, and the premise of the book states that there is an issue. And it is specific to our locale and problems.

When an issue is identified we often deny real observed empirical information far too easily because of the origin (i.e National says it so its false....), or because it does not fit our assumptions and prejudices. This leads to opposing evidence regardless of its validity. If we were to take off the glasses and juggle contradictory views we might be further ahead, but thats "politics".

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I have been arguing about Peterson with his fan boys. This cartoon seems to sum it all up. Apologies if you've seen it Greywarbler

greywarbler said...

I think we are still very affected by class and small-country colonial cringe when thinking about our punishment ethic.

I was surprised at the quote from one of the leading moneyed NZs that overseas they were amazed that we hadn't established a society with money at the top, and workers at the bottom, and they considered NZ backward as a result, implying he was also. This equality thing and rising wages and aggressive unions raised eyebrows apparently and should be 'dealt with' and repressed.

At the worker strata, the ability to criticise others and gain superior status from being reluctant to embrace any idea that involved change and possible failure, established a cringe, conservative society without imagination, and hard-faced judgment of others.

So both classes don't have the confidence to be themselves and a pride in the country, and judgment of its achievements and worth to allow for faults. There must be reproach, disassociation and punishment. After the initial burst of colonials, those here started to sort people out and some were sent home. It may have been entirely practical, but the 'you aren't good enough to be one of us' started early.

We still usually need to have input from others, a pat on the head from people overseas to confirm we are doing well. I think at least one of the brave and unique actions we now are known for and proud of, began as an impulsive commitment, not one taken after deep ethical considerations and determined, courageous pluck.

greywarbler said...

Don't apologise. If you say something I don't agree with I should take NickJs view and let other opinions, obviously wrong! - float near me and maybe I'll learn a different view. And most of what you say is good stuff and adds to my 'unversity of the head.'

And Jordan P cartoon is so good - how can one have a valid opinion of him till you have heard all he has to say? And he has so much to say, with complete confidence, calling on his own authority of years of experience.

I might mention here the book of Games that People Play written in the 1960's by Eric Berne (who went on to formalise his thinking in Transactional Analysis - looking at how and why we communicate in particular ways with certain people. Why is it not being used and quoted today?? We are continually bombarded with new approaches to cultural problems by people like Peterson.

Berne noticed repetitive patterns in human interactions and proceeded to observe and note the effects, the good outcomes and the disadvantages of certain behaviours, and why they would often be repeated although not positive.

This Peterson approach could perhaps fit the Courtroom or Clever game.
Interested? Google keywords that will bring up a number of sites:Put up - Berne's list of Games that People Play.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah ... transactional analysis. I remember someone trying to get me interested in it years ago. It never really took. But it must be said that at least it's measurable unlike Freudian psychology. These days I must say I'm more like the old buffers on that English program "grumpy old men". I'm more interested these days and why you can't get a decent potato from the supermarket, and why – just less than 100 km north of Wellington – petrol is $0.20! A litre cheaper. I just keep my hand in arguing with Peterson fan boys because there seems to be some sort of app that brings them out of the woodwork whenever the man is criticised in any way shape or form. I figure that anyone who can't scrape up a few supporters at least among women can't be that worthwhile.

greywarbler said...

Oh dear GS. Is that a paean of praise for women? Perhaps not. Or is the term fanboys scathing and applied in equality to fangirls.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Fan boys sometimes spelt fanbois is a young people's term acquired from my son, that refers to people who uncritically accept what their heroes say as gospel or who uncritically accept as superior some form of gadget. I think it's fan boys because most of them are young and male stereotypically living in their mother's basement without a girlfriend. :) I do believe it can be applied to almost anything, from phones to people. I find it particularly apt when referring to those who worship Jordan Peterson. And I have yet to come across a fan of his who is female. Now obviously I haven't got a huge statistical sample, but judging from what he says about women I doubt if there would be many anyway. (Maybe Ann Coulter.) And I definitely think there's something wrong with someone's ideas if they only appeal to one sex.:)