A woeful week for justice

It’s been a woeful week for justice with legislation introduced for John Key’s boot camps alongside Act’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy and the Maori Party calling for iwi to invest in private prisons.

We all know none of these proposals are sensible, either economically or socially, and yet the politicians blunder on inventing new programmes at the bottom of the cliff while the erosion at the top is ignored.

National and Act are following their tried and true path on law and order. It’s important for them to keep the focus on self-righteously blaming society’s victims rather than facing the social and economic changes needed to sort out the problems. Even when crime rates decline they do their best to whip up fear and loathing with expressions of pompous indignation.

They are helped by the media who present us with murder and mayhem as the new entertainment. Crime is now sensationalised like never before and we are encouraged to wallow in the shocking behaviour of the few. It’s all presented in easily digestible sound bites with suitably nasty criminals held up as subjects for our collective loathing.

There’s always been a boot-camp streak running through New Zealand. It’s regularly fanned into flame by politicians who see easy votes in the frustrations of communities dealing with crime. Give them some discipline to straighten them out is National’s answer. Lock them up for life is Act’s answer.

We know neither of these will make a blind bit of difference but politicians calculate there are less votes to be had addressing the problems than there are attacking the symptoms so we have brain-dead debates about boot camps.

John Key is right in suggesting we have 1000 or so “ticking time bombs” among young New Zealanders. You might think a politician would conduct a bit of research about this group before embarking on a $35 million project to sort them out. However we all know what would be found. These young violent offenders will all have more than their fair share of the risk factors associated with youth crime: poverty; poor health and housing; low educational achievement; dysfunctional family life; unemployed or erratically employed adults in low-paid, casualised work at unsociable hours; drink and drugs. Combinations of these factors bring social breakdown, alienation and criminal behaviour.

None of this is unclear and instead of focusing on the individuals we should first tackle the environment which leads to this behaviour in the first place.

There are plenty of places to start. Why not begin looking carefully at the decision of the Human Rights Review Tribunal released just before Xmas last year which found the so-called in-work tax credit discriminates against some 200,000 of the most deprived children in New Zealand? The decision came from a case brought by the Child Poverty Action Group and challenged the provision of tax credits for children only if the parents are working.

It was a Labour government policy to “incentivise” people into work. Instead it has helped drive families and children further into poverty. National’s response of boot camps, teenagers with tracking devices worn at school and more prisons is equally hopeless.

And why the army? This is the last place to prepare people to make good life choices. Harshness and deprivation of liberty don’t teach self-reliance and self-discipline. They teach blind obedience. Kim Workman best described this proposal as “correctional quackery”.

Then the Act Party’s three strikes legislation went to a select committee last week. Under this policy criminals convicted of a serious offence for the third time would be sent to prison for a minimum of 25 years. It is not designed to stop crime or protect the community but to keep blaming the victims of Act’s free-market polices implemented in the last 25 years by Labour and National.

There is never any excuse for violent, criminal behaviour but neither is their any excuse for ignoring the social and economic drivers of the problem.

Another visionless disappointment was Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia’s announcement encouraging iwi groups to tender to run or provide services in privately run prisons. Turia says she’s sure “if the privatisation of Ngawha Prison was going to be up for consideration Ngati Hine and Ngati Rangi would be extremely interested – as indeed for other iwi considering the location of prisons throughout their rohe”.

Having gained some financial redress from treaty settlements Turia is suggesting it be invested in keeping people, disproportionately Maori, behind bars. It’s a proposal to invest in Rodney Hide’s prisons policy rather than the welfare of Maori families.

A more bleak investment would be hard to find.