Science versus ‘populist voice’ on criminal justice

It is often said that populist public pressure has pushed politicians into tougher penalties, and this has pushed the prison population to the extent that New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world.

David Fisher has a ‘big read’ at the Herald on Justice path and bulging prisons – will NZ listen to scientist or sceptic?

Here is a little read of some of the main points.

  • It’s science sceptic versus scientist in the debate over our criminal justice path
  • Garth McVicar says academics and scientists shouldn’t be involved
  • The Prime Minister’s chief scientist says the choice belongs to the public
  • The verdict from Justice Minister Andrew Little

Science in crime and justice is bunkum and politicians should discard “academics and those type of people” in favour of the public voice, says the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar.

That’s his take on the heavily researched, deeply referenced report published by the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, into our criminal justice system.

In an extraordinary interview, McVicar ridiculed scientifically backed evidence and told Minister of Justice Andrew Little he had his “ammunition ready” to bring the Government down after a single term if bail and sentencing changes were rolled back.

McVicar and the questionably named ‘Sensible Sentencing Trust’ probably have a more extreme take on punitive punishment.

It comes as the Government prepares to unveil plans for a “justice summit” after Little declared “tough on crime” approaches followed by New Zealand for years did not work.

Little’s comments were supported by Gluckman, whose recent evidence-based review of our approach to criminal justice found our rising prison population has not made New Zealand safer.

In fact, he said “tough on crime” had nothing to do with our falling crime rate and “dogma not data” had actually made everything worse.

The article pits the different views of ‘the lobbyist’ McVicar…

As McVicar tells it – and this is in contradiction to the graphs, statistics and peer-reviewed research in Gluckman’s report – academics and scientists had led New Zealand into a crime-ridden society until the “evolution” of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

McVicar says – and Gluckman’s report says this is not true – longer sentences, tougher bail laws and making parole more difficult to obtain have led to the fall in our crime rate.

…against the scientist Gluckman…

“Science isn’t about a single person or a single bit of data – the process of science is trying to understand over a good period of time what is going on in the world.”

As for public opinion, he says: “I think public opinion changes when it is informed by intelligent reflective conversation.”

Gluckman said the prisons report – as an example – gives the public information to make a decision. If we choose to continue to run our justice system the same way, more people will be locked up who will eventually be released, “brutalised” by prison and “over time we will escalate the crime rate”.

…the politician Little…

“In the end the whole criminal justice system is about taking people who have done things wrong and trying to stop them doing things wrong again.

“That will work for many of them. It won’t work for all of them.”

“In the end, the fewer offenders we have – particularly violent offenders – and the less recidivism we have, the better it is for community safety.”

Contrast this, he says, with increasing levels of incarceration, longer sentences and people who are inevitably, eventually released only to reoffend.

The policies of the past 30 years have not made New Zealand better, Little says.

“You’ve got to look at particularly our violent offending rate, which is going up.”

Little says: “There must be other options available that deal with the issue and keep us all safe.”

…and another politician, Opposition spokesperson Mark Mitchell:

The idea that “dogma” driven by lobby groups and magnified by media influenced politicians to create laws that didn’t work is a notion that doesn’t sit well with former police officer Mark Mitchell, now National’s justice spokesman.

“I completely agree that data and science should be a big driver of good policy decisions but I completely reject the notion that dogma has not only been an approach our Government has taken but previous Governments as well.

Mitchell says: “This is my own personal view, it’s too much of a simplistic and easy view to take that it’s just populism. It’s not actually populism – it’s people need to be safe.

The idea of “feeling” safe might be “emotive”, he says. “There’s nothing wrong with having emotive feelings. It’s always going to be the responsibility of the Government that they are doing the best that they can to keep good, law-abiding citizens and communities safe.”

Asked if jail works, Mitchell says it is “necessary in terms of making sure first and foremost communities remain safe and people remain safe and aren’t exposed to violence, in particular”.

But he does say more work needs to be done on rehabilitation and reintegration, so prisoners can “engage in a positive way with communities and rebuild their own lives”.

Back to Gluckman:

He cited evidence showing “successive administrations on both sides of the political spectrum” were “encouraged by vocal, professional lobbyists”.

It’s a phenomena dubbed “penal populism”, also seen in Britain and United States, where “politicians offer vote-winning, simplistic solutions for selected law-and-order problems”.

Choices made – not on evidence – led to rocketing prison costs and prisoner numbers but no sign of a safer public or crime rates falling.

Andrew Little and the Government have a big challenge dealing with escalating prison numbers, but also making the general population feel safer.

It isn’t sensible to just keep reacting to crime with longer and tougher sentences.

Perhaps there is a need for a Sensible Prevention Trust, and a Sensible Rehab Trust.

36 Comments

  1. alloytoo

     /  May 17, 2018

    We need to accept that prisons serve multiple purposes:

    1. Preventative
    2. Punitive
    3. Rehabilitative

    If those goals can be achieve by alternative means then I’m all for it.

    However in respect of repetitive violent criminals I’m quite willing to forgo the rehabilitative aspect as long as the preventative goal is met. If that’s overly punitive, I don’t care.

    • Gezza

       /  May 17, 2018

      No that’s not overly punitive. Haven’t read down properly yet A2 but that seems to sum up my thinking too. There is a set of recidivist or very violent offenders whose problem is pathological, not psychologically remediable.

  2. duperez

     /  May 17, 2018

    It isn’t sensible to just keep reacting to crime with longer and tougher sentences.

    But it is sensible to react to populism which says it is sensible to react to crime with longer and tougher sentences if you want the electoral clamour to be on your side.

    Baying about being “weak on crime”, “supporting crims” and just “weak-kneed” are shrieking voices, piercing and indelible.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  May 17, 2018

      Victims of crime will always carry a heavy emotional impact. If they can be convinced that the right actions are being taken to deal with the offenders then most sensible people will follow.

    • Corky

       /  May 17, 2018

      Not so much wanting longer and tougher sentences, but applying the law as it stands. Judges aren’t doing that. They invoke ‘mitigating circumstances’ far too often.

      As I have stated before. Legalise drugs and our prisons will empty.

      • High Flying Duck

         /  May 17, 2018

        Not quite Corky – you’d have to legalise violence and sex offeces for that:

        • Corky

           /  May 17, 2018

          Yes, but… many of those other offences are related to drug addiction, gang and turf wars over drugs and other problem related to drugs being illegal.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  May 17, 2018

          Ducky, you’d also have to legalise theft, fraud, burglary, drunk driving, unlawful possession of firearms, threatening bebehaviour and wilful damage. Why not just not have nothing classed as a crime at all ? Then there’d be no need for police, courts or judges as well as prisons. 0% incarceration rate in one fell swoop ! Brilliant !

          • Corky

             /  May 17, 2018

            ”Ducky, you’d also have to legalise theft, fraud, burglary, drunk driving, unlawful possession of firearms, threatening be behaviour and wilful damage.”

            Not brilliant. In fact, downright idiotic.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  May 17, 2018

              You are indeed idiotic, no need to announce this. Only an idiot would take this seriously. QED. Now scuttle off back to wherever you’ve been lately and stay there, M. Erde.

  3. Grimm

     /  May 17, 2018

    It’s pretty much known now from birth, which kids we need to set a bed aside in a prison as adults.

    Until we intervene there, the prison population ain’t gonna be trimmed. The huge drop in teen mother’s under National will reap benefits in 15 years. That’s a good start. But we continue to restrict the reproductive choices of good parents by taking money off them to give to bad ones.

    • Blazer

       /  May 17, 2018

      you are a wasted talent…Bill’s Social Investment ‘ plan is crying out for a seer…like yourself!
      ‘It’s pretty much known now from birth, which kids we need to set a bed aside in a prison as adults.’

      • Grimm

         /  May 17, 2018

        You’re on the right track Blazer. Dig deeper into the policy background and you’ll find a very high correlation between intergenerational benefit receipt and ending in up in a gulag.

        • Blazer

           /  May 17, 2018

          dig even deeper and you’ll find the entitled,priveleged,’born to rule’…committ the most dire criminal acts and ….escape meaningful…retribution or rehabilitation.

          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  May 17, 2018

            More drivel.

            • Gezza

               /  May 17, 2018

              Had to downtick the “drivel” for lack of originality I’m afraid, Sir Alan :/

          • Gezza

             /  May 17, 2018

            Did you check out the Dunedin Study & the documentary series, Blazer?
            Episode 3, in particular?

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  May 17, 2018

          Grimm, I have told the story of the S family in Wanganui who have been criminals for generations. My mother taught one, a bright boy who became a keen reader and learner and who (she hoped) would go on to better things. But in later years, there was his name in the court news. When I was looking at houses there, I saw one that I fancied and that looked ideal. I asked a friend what B St was like. Her response was that the S’s lived in the next one. I didn’t bother to go and look at the house.

          To the S’s, crime is the family business, as farming or medicine is in others.

      • High Flying Duck

         /  May 17, 2018

        It’s a bit more nuanced perhaps, but the predicotrs are strong:

        “we could go back as early as age three and get a very strong prediction of who ended up in that group that used 80% of the services. That’s unusual for this sort of research, because most of the findings linking childhood attributes or risk factors to adult outcomes report statistically significant, but rather small effect sizes or strength of association. We found quite strong prediction – the take-home point of that being that if you segment the population into those most at risk of using services, the risk factors end up being very strong predictors.”

        https://thespinoff.co.nz/parenting/14-12-2016/future-criminals-revealed-at-age-three-not-so-fast-says-dunedin-study-head/

        • Blazer

           /  May 17, 2018

          people go to prison for not conforming to the system in place.Debt slavery and pursuit of the ‘American Dream ‘ are imprinted and obedience is…expected.

          • High Flying Duck

             /  May 17, 2018

            People go to prison for breaking the law.
            There are plenty of non-conformists who manage to stay out of trouble.
            You are right that white collar criminals have had a comparably easy ride in the past, but this has changed – there are now significant penalties and Directors have personal liabilities like never before.
            It takes significant offending to be put in prison these days.

    • alloytoo

       /  May 17, 2018

      The generous part of me thinks:

      Bill’s social investment strategy doesn’t have enough “Feelz” for today for the current government to continue it.

      The less generous part of me thinks:

      The current government doesn’t really understand “Investment” and “Return”

      The complete cynic in me thinks:

      Bill’s strategy scared the beejebas out of the current government as it had the potential to wipe out their voter base within a few decades (Likewise Charter schools).

      • Blazer

         /  May 17, 2018

        don’t worry Bill’s was just another feelgood slogan,paying lip service to social …inequality.

        • High Flying Duck

           /  May 17, 2018

          Social investment was the first genuine attempt to attack the root of the problem causing crime, welfare dependency and social issues.
          Whether it would have been successful is now moot as the current lot are going to go back to treating symptoms once the horse has bolted.

          • Blazer

             /  May 17, 2018

            Are you trying to say this is some new conclusion!!
            FFS ,no one needs to be hit with a sledgehammer to understand the inequalities in life and social mobility.
            Various forms of the feudal system maintain the status quo…bosses/workers,rich/poor,haves/have nots…however you want to…frame it.

            • High Flying Duck

               /  May 17, 2018

              When you use terms like “Feudal system:” you do yourself no favours.
              Ambulance at the top of the cliff is hardly revolutionary, however the methods being used to target and ensure resources were put exactly where needed was definitely revolutionary.

            • Blazer

               /  May 17, 2018

              if you call gathering data…revolutionary!I call it common sense.

            • “bosses/workers,rich/poor,haves/have nots…”
              “inequalities in life”
              Can you do me a favour and explain how an alternative enriching and more “equal” society might work.

            • Blazer

               /  May 17, 2018

              @Trav…that is a long dissertation.Are you saying there is no better way than,that that currently..exists?
              Clue..step 1 reform the banking system and the entrenched networks and base earnings solely on…merit.

    • sorethumb

       /  May 17, 2018

      Actually it is socialisation at 3 yo (or something) I think. In which case the left are wrong in advocating a hands off and give them welfare approach as those parents are the problem?

  4. namron

     /  May 17, 2018

    I reckon that our recidivist criminals need the Singapore solution. Singapore’s crime statistics show that it works
    Fear of the punishment in NZ for repeat NZ criminals is a “big laugh”. However, the rattan punishment produces some of the lowest crime figures in the world.
    We’re just too politically correct to follow their successful example.
    [Do a bit of googling and verify this information for yourselves.]

  5. Kitty Catkin

     /  May 17, 2018

    People can’t feel emotive, it means playing on the emotions to produce a particular result, as in using emotive language as Garth McVicar does. His trust’s name is also emotive in a way,

  6. Gezza

     /  May 17, 2018

    McVicar & Co should at least get honest & change their organisation’s name to the Severe Sentencing Trust.

  1. Science versus ‘populist voice’ on criminal justice — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition