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.