NEW ZEALAND VIEW
Carrot and stick must work together to
We should be happy that the Chief Justice, Sian Elias,
has reneged on her New Year's resolution not to enter into controversy.
For from her position, she is uniquely placed to give informed,
intelligent comment on our criminal justice system. And it is important,
particularly in an election year, to have evidence-based debate on
sentencing, because crime, justice and personal security are such
important issues. So often politicians of all stripes seem to want to
subvert robust debate in favour of empty posturing because they want to
be seen, and known, as being "on your side". That means that too often
the political dialogue is really just a series of insults hurled about a
half-empty parliamentary chamber when, of course, none of that hot air
helps to make New Zealanders safer. Perhaps it isn't surprising that, in
a highly charged political environment, inherently complex issues are
reduced to black-and-white sloganeering. Two perfectly reasonable
proposals, such as longer prison sentences for serious criminals on the
one hand, and, let's say, investing in effective early intervention to
try to prevent young people from developing into criminal adults on the
other, thus end up being portrayed as if they are incompatible. But that
To me, it is a bit like running a family. When the
children are young, as parents we try the best we can to teach them to
embrace good, solid values by setting the best example we can ourselves.
That investment in time and love is "early intervention". Supporting
this sort of intervention isn't incompatible with tough love sanctions
being imposed on the young teenager who has broken a serious rule: like
taking a bottle of uncle's brandy without asking. And just because tough
sanctions and penalties are imposed for stealing uncle's brandy, that
doesn't mean that I, as a father, am going to wash my hands of the child
I've helped to bring into this world. I'm not going to lock him out of
the house forever. Instead, I'll redouble my efforts to help my child
get back on to the right track. Most importantly, I'll redouble my
efforts to make him really want to get back on track for his own sake.
So there are no contradictions between imprisoning the serious criminals
who are a danger to all of us, while also promoting more resources for
effective early intervention or effective intervention during prison
terms, as well as dealing with some other social factors that evidence
suggests may contribute to the development of future criminals.
The Chief Justice talked of Finland. There, the
Parliament and media organisations decades ago agreed to treat the
public with respect by conducting the terms of debate on crime as an
informed quest for truth, justice and solutions — not some kind of game
We can be like Finland, too.
In 2001, I headed a ministerial taskforce that
directed the work that produced the report About Time, which the Chief
Justice referred to. The evidence from New Zealand and other comparable
jurisdictions was carefully weighed. The professionals who compiled the
evidence for ministers found that earliest possible intervention works
best and costs least. For example, intervention for a 5-year-old who is
aggressive, defiant and rule-breaking is estimated to cost $5000 a case,
with a success rate of 70 per cent. The same behaviour at 25 cost
$20,000 a case, with a success rate of 20 per cent, at most. The report
does not say that dangerous, aggressive offenders should not be
imprisoned. But it did find that we imprison too readily.
In essence the evidence shows that the most
effective strategies are:
- Prevention, which involves the introduction of a
planned and integrated range of barriers to progressing from
disadvantaged childhood to serious adult offending.
- Alternative sentencing for selected teenage
offenders to provide for intensive rehabilitation, featuring job
placement as a way of reducing progress to adult reoffending.
- Rehabilitation of established adult offenders to
improve their prospects of staying out prison.
Basically we need, urgently, to start joining the
Prisons tell us many things about our social needs.
Most of our prisoners, for example, come from the pool of 530,000 adult
New Zealanders who are either totally or functionally illiterate. Our
prisons also tell us much about the alcohol and illegal drug-abuse
habits and trends in our country. Unpleasant truths, but ones we have to
face and fix. We have to ask the hard questions and accept the
challenges with courage.
In her New Year speech, the Chief Justice concluded:
"Crime and its causes cannot adequately be addressed through penal
Actually, there is absolutely nothing controversial
about her speech. It is common sense.
15 February 2005