The evidence is clear: harsher sentences don’t actually deter crime in any meaningful sense. So what does work? Lawyer Andrew Grant has some suggestions.
Aotearoa in 2022 has a crime problem.
Instances of violent crime have increased by 30% from pre-pandemic levels. “Ram raid” incidents, probably the most publicised pattern of criminal activity in New Zealand in 2022, have more than doubled over the past 12 months. Business owners, parents and ordinary New Zealanders are justifiably scared.
The frequent reaction to a rise in criminal activity is to clamour for the government to “get tough on crime”. I’ve heard it frequently during my career as a lawyer in New Zealand and the United States. Usually, it means a call for harsher sentences for offending and a more aggressive approach to prosecution. Political figures of all stripes have advocated for these measures in 2022, on the basis that they would remove ram raiders from society and keep violent criminals off our streets. This, they say, makes us safer.
The problem is that, in anything more than a very short-term sense, it doesn’t.
The evidence from around the world tells us that imposing longer prison sentences for offenders, particularly those under 25, does not cause crime rates to fall. As the US-based National Institute of Justice found in 2016, harsher punishments usually have no deterrent effect on young would-be criminals. In fact, longer prison sentences often cause crime rates to rise over time, such is the effect imprisonment has on those consigned to it.
It’s not hard to imagine why that is. If a young person, particularly one already at a socio-economic disadvantage, commits a crime out of youthful stupidity, locking that person up for an extended length of time is likely to be disastrous. Educational or job opportunities will probably not be there when they get out, and they’re bound to become disengaged from whatever might have previously kept them on the straight and narrow in the outside world.
Most consequentially, they’ll be exposed to other prisoners who will contribute only to their sense of bitterness at the system. They’ll be taught how to be a worse, more hardened criminal. Once that young person rejoins the outside world, usually with no support, the commission of further and worse crime is the obvious result. We are all then much less safe.
Is there a better way? I think so. Being “tough on crime” really means addressing the causes of crime, and preventing repeat offending. It means stopping criminal activity at its source, and rehabilitating those who do offend, particularly at a young age, back into society.
Here are five ways to do that:
Increasing police resourcing and training. The National Institute of Justice research tells us that while the prospect of tougher sentences is not a deterrent to people breaking the law, an increased chance of getting caught certainly is. We need to increase police numbers, train them well and back them with better resources.
More funding for organisations to ensure our kids get to school regularly. Fewer than 60% of teenagers now regularly attend school in New Zealand. The connection between truancy and crime among high school students is clear and obvious. Organisations like Community Patrol New Zealand, as well as the Māori and Pasifika Wardens, do so much good in our communities. They are well-placed to partner with the government to ensure our kids get to class and stay out of trouble.
More funding for early-intervention mental health support in the criminal justice system. There is a strong link between poor mental health and criminal activity. Compulsory mental health support as part of a corrective sentence gives offenders a significantly better chance of getting on the right path after they do their time.
Compulsory vocational training as part of more custodial sentences. One of the key problems with sending young people to prison is the complete absence of options they have to contribute to society once they’re out. Work drastically reduces the chances of repeat offending and more importantly, gives dignity.
Funding for post-sentence pastoral support. Custodial sentences are isolating experiences, and tossing a person back into the community with no support system once they’ve served their time makes it much more likely that they’ll turn to crime again. Look at the prevalence of 501 deportees in the Auckland CBD if you don’t believe me. Funding for community-based support people and mentoring at organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau, local marae and the Auckland City Mission would provide much-needed guidance to people integrating back into society.
All of this has echoes of a “social investment” approach to criminal justice. Advocates of social investment know that its application to areas like criminal justice not only makes us a safer and happier country, but also has a strong economic case behind it.
The evidence is clear that if we keep treating the justice system as a tool for punishment and isolation, the bill for taxpayers in policing, prosecuting and incarcerating people over and over again will only increase over time. Corrections estimates that it costs roughly $150,000 to keep someone in prison for a year in New Zealand. It costs even more per person to run New Zealand’s courts system, which is well beyond capacity as it is. Police expend countless resources on violent, recidivist crime. The health system suffers, too.
By contrast, putting more money into well-trained police, mental health support and vocational training in prisons will dramatically reduce the cost of crime in the long run. Quite simply, fewer people would commit fewer crimes that cost the taxpayer money. Those who would otherwise be engaged in repeated criminal behaviour are instead far more likely to hold down jobs, pay tax and contribute to New Zealand.
There are, of course, exceptions. But for the most part, use of the five tools above would drastically improve criminal justice outcomes in New Zealand. Fewer people would offend, and fewer victims would feel the effects of their offending.
That’s really getting “tough on crime”.