Does punishment prevent crime?

Jeremy Vargo

Auckland, May 25, 2018

Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a friend that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

To this list we might add at least one more certainty: crime.

Throughout history, across societies and cultures, both crime and the systems for catching and dealing with the people who commit it have taken many forms.

Our own corrections system is now under enormous strain.

Despite overall crime rates dropping steadily in the past few decades, rates of violent and sexual crime have been tracking upwards since 1998.

Recipe for high rate

Combine this with the 2013 law that tightened bail restrictions—keeping a steadily rising number of alleged offenders waiting in prison for their day in court—and we’ve got a recipe for the record high prison population that we see today in New Zealand.

Despite overall crime rates dropping steadily in the past few decades, rates of violent and sexual crime have been tracking upwards

To some, this is a good sign. Last week, the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar told a New Zealand Herald journalist ”We’ve got a high prison population but crime is at its lowest – what’s the correlation there? You’ve locked up the bad buggers. Simple.”

He was responding to the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser’s report that suggests our ‘tough on crime’ policy settings aren’t doing anything to reduce crime rates. Instead, Sir Peter Gluckman’s report posits that the overall crime decrease “stemmed from lower property crime, mainly because of better security – more CCTV, better lighting in streets, the difficulty of stealing modern cars, and other factors” including better police work.

Twisting figures

McVicar says the scientists “twist figures around” to support bad policy, leading to soft on crime approaches that fail. His answer? Listen to “the voice of public opinion” when it comes to crime and punishment. “In our opinion, public opinion had been totally ignored [through the 1990s] and the academics and criminologists and all those sort of people had driven criminal justice policy even though it was very clear that it was failing.”

One man’s democratic solution can be another’s tyranny of the majority.

‘Voice of the People’

What to think? First, the value of “public opinion” in determining the correct way to proceed on public policy issues will vary depending on our own views on an issue. If the majority happen to agree with our point of view, we’re quick to point it out and recommend politicians listen to the “voice of the people.” If the reverse is true, we can be quick to warn against “mob rule” or “groupthink” overruling reason and best practice. One man’s democratic solution can be another’s tyranny of the majority.

Second, regardless of what side of the “prison as punishment” debate you fall on, it’s important to keep in mind that most of the time, we can’t actually lock people up and throw away the key. Almost all prisoners will at some point be released back into the community, which means we can’t afford to talk about imprisonment as if it is an ultimate solution to crime and criminals.

Most of the time, we can’t actually lock people up and throw away the key.

Prisons not effective

Prisons are not particularly effective environments in encouraging people to become more law-abiding; in fact, the opposite is true. Over 50% of people who have completed a prison sentence in New Zealand will re-offend within two years of release. Increasing the number of people who spend a period of time in prison is not making society safer long-term.

Instead, we should look soberly at what actually works to help criminals rehabilitate and re-enter society better than they did prior to their interaction with the justice and corrections system.

Proper response

These more effective solutions can include time in prison, alongside drug treatment and rehabilitation and re-entry programmes like the Whare Oranga Ake rehabilitation units at Hawkes Bay and Springhill prisons.

In the words of New Zealand’s Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, our justice and correction system exists along “the axis between retribution and rehabilitation.”

Both can be “a proper response” to criminal behaviour, but we have to be careful that our desire to punish offenders and protect ourselves in the short term doesn’t lead us to prop up an unsustainable system that will cause more harm, and more victimisation in the long run.

Jeremy Vargo is Media & Communications Officer at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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