Crime is a wicked problem

Priyanca Radhakrishnan – This newspaper needs-Priyanca Radhakrishnan

The recent spate of burglaries and assaults on retailers and international students has heated up discussions about law and order that have been simmering on the back burner.

A number of public meetings have been held in Auckland to allay fears and discuss possible solutions.

Practically everyone has had a story involving the Police and I have heard many theories about the best way to address crime.

There is probably some validity to each of those theories because crime is a complex and multifaceted issue.

Complex matters

In policy-speak, it is known as a ‘Wicked Problem.’

Wicked problems are policy issues that are complex, and highly resistant to being solved. They tend to be difficult to define, have various root causes and are interconnected with a number of other issues. Solving such issues involves addressing a number of related issues. There are no quick fixes when it comes to wicked problems.

That brings me to one ‘solution’ that always comes up – harsher punishments.

Sadly, international evidence tells us that lengthening prison sentences does nothing to reduce crime. A recent study by the New South Wales Crime Bureau found that increasing the risk of arrest and imprisonment was much more effective.

The same study found that an improved economy and employment levels also provided strong disincentives to crime.

Some disincentives

We need disincentives to crime to form a fence at the top of the cliff and to change the landscape that nurtures criminal activity.

We need a strong ambulance at the bottom of the cliff so that offenders are caught and held accountable for their actions.

We must have a Police force that is adequately resourced so that police officers are able to respond when members of the public call 111.

We recently heard of incidents in which victims of crime were forced to retrieve their own stolen goods, placing their safety in jeopardy because they were told that the Police were unable to assist for various reasons.

We have also heard of retailers who say they are armed just to get the Police out to their shop after a crime has been committed.

Members of the public should not feel that they need to take the law into their own hands to get justice.

It is no secret that New Zealand Police is inadequately resourced.

More for less

The Police Commissioner acknowledged that Police has had to absorb $300 million in rising costs – costs for which they have not been compensated.

Police are being expected to do more with less funding.

The situation is even more dire in the context of New Zealand’s continued population growth. Further evidence Police cost-saving measures include closure of 30 police stations since 2009 and the move to amend legislation to allow Police to charge for some services that according to them are not core services, such as Police vetting.

Resources are stretched thin, response times to 111 calls are increasing and offenders are being caught less often.

Low resolution

In Auckland, the crime resolution rate for burglaries has fallen to about six per cent. That means in 94 per cent of cases, offenders get away scot free.

We also know that there are a number of other factors at play when it comes to crime prevention. Factors like income inequality, family violence and substance abuse play a significant role in rising crime rates.

Crime is a wicked problem- Police Benefits Web

International research, most recently a study published in the Oxford Economics Paper, tells us that there is a strong positive correlation between pronounced income inequality and violent crime. The wider the socioeconomic gap, the the more gains potential criminals perceive. Offenders carry out a cost-benefit analysis just like anyone else. If there’s a low chance of getting caught and a potentially large gain, the crime will be carried out.

We know all this. And yet, the gap between the rich and the rest of us in New Zealand continues to grow. Rising income inequality is the norm amongst most developed countries, but very few have seen it increase as much as New Zealand has done.

According to a United Nations report, child poverty has hardly decreased since 2008.

The housing crisis is so grave that owning their own home is a pipedream for the younger members of our society.

In fact, for Generation Y – those born in the 1980s and 1990s – things are not looking good at all. Unemployment rates for young people have not recovered as fast as for those in older age brackets since the financial crisis.

For some, higher education is not helping much either – the proportion of those with Bachelor’s degrees in the lowest income brackets in on the rise.

Family violence

Recent reports show that New Zealand has the highest reported rates of intimate partner violence and child abuse in the developed world. Latest statistics show that Police attend 279 family violence incidents a day – statistics also tells us that 80% of family violence incidents are not reported to Police.

So many young violent offenders are products of utterly dysfunctional environments – various combinations and permutations of family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and gang affiliations. As a country, we seem to be slipping backwards in all those areas. Coupled with low conviction rates and an inadequately resourced police force, is it any wonder that so many of us have a story to tell about close encounters with crime?

Priyanca Radhakrishnan is a voracious reader, champions social and community causes and is a strong advocate of ethnic and gender diversity in corporate governance and in public life. She is a Member of the Labour Party Policy Council and lives in Auckland.

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Photo Caption:

  1. Let us drive these to the top of the cliff

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