Income inequality is the culprit in rising crime

Wasn’t it a breath of fresh air?

Chief Justice Sian Elias’s comments that we need to look at alternatives to putting more people behind bars was the opening of a door in a windowless bunker. It was a sudden relief after so long in the stultifying, claustrophobic atmosphere of irrational fear mongering which is our penal policy.

Her mild-mannered comments speak truth to foolishness. For too long discussion on penal policy has been dominated by populist politicians and the likes of the Sensible Sentencing Trust whose well-funded campaigns have fuelled public anxiety and driven the clamour for longer, harsher sentences.

Our main political parties are still competing to be the toughest on crime. The skewing of public debate has been extreme. The latest budget contained major cuts to such things as community education while funding for prisons increased.

Justice Minister Simon Power isn’t interested in the Chief Justice’s comments. He petulantly complained she was out of order and said it was the government’s job to make prison policy and the judiciary’s job to implement it. Fair enough in a dictatorship but a public contribution from an expert senior judge should be welcomed in a democracy.

A similar predictable reaction came from Act MP and Sensible Sentencing Trust legal advisor David Garrett. He says we should take our lead from the US and build more prisons and fill them with more prisoners. Instead of pushing comic-book penal policy he and Simon Power could learn from reading English authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett who have written a stunning little book called The Spirit Level.

They use data from the World Bank and official United Nations sources to examine the prevalence of major social problems in developed countries namely: violent crime, low education achievement, obesity, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems, drug use, etc. The authors compared the levels of these problems across the globe and have found that they are not related to poverty but to income inequality.

They pull together the results from a wide range of international research by sociologists and psychologists and provide a clear and compelling analysis as to why countries such as New Zealand have become broken with debilitating social problems. The correlation between each social problem and the level of income inequality in each country is startling. Countries with higher income inequality, such as the USA and New Zealand, have much deeper social problems. New Zealand stands out in a way that makes a mockery of our history.

The book tells us what most of us know intuitively: The rise in social problems over the past 25 years is related to the dramatic increase in income inequality over the same period. The rich are getting richer while the poor languish in relative poverty and develop the negative social statistics with which we are familiar.

When it comes to violent crime such as murder, the link to income inequality is dramatic and inescapable. The US is high on both counts and New Zealand is racing to catch up.

Garrett points to what he says has been a drop in violent crime in the US after the country began heavier sentencing. However the drop he talks about from the peak in the early 1990s is related to the period when income inequality decreased somewhat during the Clinton years in the White House. During George Bush’s reign inequality and crime went back on the increase.

The US which has had more experience of prisons than any other country (it has four times the incarceration rates of other developed countries) has learnt the least. There is nothing to emulate here. The consensus amongst prison experts worldwide is that prison as a deterrent doesn’t work and we know prisons don’t produce the outcomes we want. It seems clear it is high conviction rates which have the greatest impact reducing crime rather than long prison sentences.

Surely the last thing we want to do is follow the US path whereby in 2004 there were 360 people in California serving life sentences for shoplifting.

Prominent and respected American criminologist John Irwin says prison is generally believed to have four “official” purposes – retribution for crime committed, deterrence, incapacitation of dangerous criminals and rehabilitation. However he says three other “unofficial” purposes have shaped America’s prison policy. These are what he calls class control – the need to protect honest middle-class citizens from the dangerous criminal underclass, scapegoating – diverting attention away from more serious social problems caused by growing inequalities in wealth and income and using the threat of criminal activity for political gain.

Irwin could easily have been writing about New Zealand.

It’s been pleasing to see the reaction to Sian Elias’s comments has not been as negative as one might have thought. There is a vein of commonsense that runs through New Zealand and it’s to be hoped the real cause of rising crime, high income inequality, will be openly debated. But for the moment just savour the sweet smell of oxygen before Garrett and Power do their best to slam the bunker door shut once more.