Remove the cause not the symptoms

Issue 369 May 15, 2017

The recent outbreak of robbery, aggravated robbery with increasing incidents of violence against dairies, superettes, liquor stores and petrol stations in Auckland and other places around the country has caused public outrage.

The owners and staff in this retail business feel threatened and all of them have called for harsh punishment to be meted out to the perpetrators. “Lock them up, and throw away the key,” most of them have said, while yet others have proposed to ‘defend themselves with ‘weapons’ including arms.

We do not condone thefts, robberies, bag-snatching and such offences. In fact, we condemn them in the strongest terms and would like to see the offenders paying for their crimes. All of us have the right to be safe and importantly, right to feel safe.

Getting to the root

But there is a greater need to get to the root of the problem, find out why these young people take to crime and what makes them reticent to punitive measures. In most cases, the offenders suffer from some loneliness, desperation, neglect by parents and caregivers, unhealthy habits learnt from formative years, unemployment and worst of all depression and frustration. These are people who need help.

Social Justice advocate Dr Kim Workman has done extensive research on the subject and he believes that governments have failed because they have forgotten to bring into the equation the most important partners – the perpetrators or offenders. He has argued, in the article alongside, as to how engaging with prisoners would help reduce crime.

Unlikely outcomes

Prisons are good for punishing criminals and keeping them off the street, but prison sentences (particularly long sentences) are unlikely to deter future crime.

Economists have long suspected that those who commit crimes place less value on the future than law-abiding citizens. But they have mostly struggled to find hard evidence that criminals think about sentence lengths at all.

Research Pointers

review by Steven Durlauf of the University of Wisconsin and Daniel Nagin at Carnegie Mellon University found little evidence that criminals responded to harsher sentencing, and much stronger evidence that increasing the certainty of punishment deterred crime. This matters for policy, as it suggests that locking vast numbers of people in jail is not only expensive, but useless as a deterrent, they said.

As Dr Walkman said, we need opportunity and space to talk within our own communities of interest, to raise consciousness, and plan for challenge and change. We should also create places to listen to ‘communities of the other’, to challenge our own attitudes.

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