IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER what the Police statisticians and the criminologists say about crime, all that matters is public perception. Crime statistics the world over may be declining. The young people of today may actually be more law-abiding than their parents and grandparents. But, when people see the consequences of a ram-raid; when they witness hooded figures helping themselves to other people’s property in broad daylight; well, then facts cease to matter. They’re alarmed. They’re angry. They want something done.
The problem, of course, is that those whose responsibility it is to do something, aren’t at all sure what can – or should – be done.
Our footpaths and retail precincts would become very unappealing places if every business was expected to erect sturdy bollards to protect its windows and doors from onrushing motor vehicles. The installation of CCTV cameras on every other lamp-post, a la the United Kingdom, would certainly allow the Police to identify law-abiding citizens easily and quickly. Against perpetrators clad in identical hoodies and wearing sunglasses, however, CCTV may not be quite so effective.
In the words of an old Police sergeant: “Locks are by far the most effective means of keeping honest people out of your house.”
Then there are the hardliners. The people who demand that every person participating in a ram-raid, or armed robbery – no matter how young they are – should be sent to jail.
Except, every person involved in this country’s penal system will object that simply throwing young offenders in jail will not work. Quite apart from the fact that New Zealand has signed up to all manner of international agreements forbidding the incarceration of minors alongside adult offenders, such a policy would simply produce a more sophisticated and highly-skilled criminal class. It would also result in deeply embittered youngsters being released into a society they despise.
Bowing to the hardliners’ demands might produce a short-term fix. It might also satisfy at least some of the public’s thirst for vengeance. But, the introduction of a policy that even its advocates realise is bound to make matters worse, is like sowing dragons’ teeth. One can only look forward to the most terrible harvest.
We will be taught, in the words of the British poet, W.H. Auden, “What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”
Cue the bleeding-hearts.
As they see the problem, the youngsters in the hoodies are the product of a society that is quite content to write-off an alarmingly large percentage of its members as hopeless cases. The money and resources needed to give the children of the poor a decent start in life is simply too much for the comfortable two-thirds of society to contemplate. Such solutions as are proposed are inevitably the cheapest ones. Under no circumstances should the nation’s wealth be redistributed to the point where the social forces generating ram-raids and robberies are no longer powerful enough to inflict serious damage.
All of which recalls the Monty Python sketch in which the accused declares: “It’s a fair cop, and society’s to blame.” Only to receive the reply: “That’s alright, we’ll book them too!”
But, how? How do we build the houses needed to ensure that kids have a secure base from which to venture out into the world – or at least to the nearest school? How do we instil in men and boys the fundamental responsibilities of fatherhood? How do we build the social solidarity necessary for criminal acts to be rejected as morally indefensible? How do we stop money continuing to be the measure of all things? How does one slap the cuffs on an entire economic system – a whole society?
Still, there will be those who say: “All very well and good, Mr Bleeding Heart, but how do you explain the absence of this sort of offending in the records of past decades? Back in the days of boys’ homes and borstals and mental hospitals?”
To those who seek to solve the problems of the present with the solutions of the past there is only one place to go, and that is to the Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Historical Abuse In Care. It is there they will discover what becomes of young people deemed worthy of discipline and punishment.
There are worse crimes than ram-raids and robberies.
Much worse crimes.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 September 2022.