Lengthy sentences do not deter crime

Priyanca Radhakrishnan

Too many people, especially dairy and liquor store owner/operators, are living in fear.

I have spoken to many who tell me that they start their business each morning anxious that burglars will make an appearance – or reappearance – to rob and assault them.

Many suffer from the trauma of brutal attacks, broken limbs, a violation of privacy and are unable to re-open their shop for months. This results in additional anxiety caused by mounting bills that cannot be repaid.

Punitive measures ineffective

There is an absolute need to reduce crime and to increase safety – but what’s the best way to do that? We can go down the punitive route to tougher, longer sentences – but do they work? There is overwhelming evidence that it does not work.

Former Justice Minister Phil Goff also told me that it does not work.

Evidence from the Singapore Government – Singapore is known for its low crime rates and harsh punishments – credits its success to a community policing model. Overwhelmingly, the evidence tells us that addressing the underlying causes of crime and ensuring that offenders are caught works better.

The current National Government has increased spending on prisons and cut spending in real terms on health, education and the Police. They have also allowed housing unaffordability to persist such that it has reached crisis point. A recent UNICEF report that tracks countries’ progress on goals such as reducing child poverty, inequality and deprivation placed New Zealand near the bottom of a list of developed countries.

Origins of crime

Recently, I read ‘The Journey to Prison: Who goes and Why?’ written by the late Celia Lashlie, a former Prison Officer and one of New Zealand’s most fearless social justice advocates. She analyses the origins of crime in New Zealand, and the way we punish offenders.

She also talks about the underlying causes of crime and how there is something cancerous in our society in which children as young as 12 commit murder. She argues for the need to address the underlying factors that lead young people to commit crimes. Her argument is backed by a wealth of international evidence that conclude there are specific risk factors associated with criminal offending.

Risk factors

Risk factors include relative poverty and inadequate housing; inconsistent or insufficient parental or guardian guidance; limited social and cognitive abilities; exclusion from school; family violence; few opportunities for employment and economic exclusion; gang involvement and drug and alcohol addiction.

No single risk factor leads a young person to offending; but there is a much higher chance that they will offend if multiple risk factors are present and there’s limited assistance to overcome those challenges.

Internationally, projects that tackle risk factors achieve significant reductions in crime.

Interventions that address youth delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, family violence and gang involvement have demonstrated success.  According to a report by the US Department of Justice, in addition to being effective, such measures are usually more cost-effective than traditional crime control measures, such as incarceration.

The American experience

A 2014 report by the National Research Council on mass incarceration in the US found that lengthy prison sentences are not the best way to deter crime.

From 1972 to 2012, the US incarceration rate quadrupled as America’s courts began handing out longer sentences (particularly for drug crimes), according to the report, which was commissioned by the Justice Department. Instead, the report noted that the certainty of being caught and the imminence of punishment were more effective deterrents of crime.

What that tells me is that a focus on addressing the underlying causes of crime along with a focus on community policing that would increase the probability of being caught are more effective than tougher sentences and building more prisons.

Crime is an emotive issue. Anyone calling for Government interventions to reduce crime should ensure they know what actually works. The worst thing they can do is to play on people’s emotions and advocate for punitive measures that at best, only make us feel good.

Priyanca Radhakrishnan is Labour Party’s candidate in the Maungakiekie constituency in the general election scheduled to be held on Saturday, September 23, 2017. Read our Editorial, “Harsh punishment works only up to a point’ in this Section.

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