'this proves Labour is soft on crime,' said Simon Bridges of the plan to return the vote to short-term prisoners. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

‘Tough on crime’ rhetoric is cheap, easy and terrifyingly effective

Why do we keep falling for politicians who promise that the latest crackdown on crime will work? Former National MP and justice reform advocate Chester Borrows weighs in. 

Removing the right of prisoners to vote is back on the agenda. The High Court found that the removal of the right of a prisoner, whose sentence will be complete in the term of an incoming government, was against the Bill of Rights. Although the Crown appealed that decision to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, the verdict didn’t change.

Minister of Justice Andrew Little has now announced that the law will change back to where it was. Not every prisoner will get to vote, only those who will be released within three years.

National Party leader Simon Bridges has vowed to reverse the law. Not based on evidence, of course, other than the evidence that these policies buy votes and probably votes National already holds. But they will also buy votes from New Zealand First and those votes are gold. 

We have less than a year until the next election. The strategies are being talked about behind closed doors. The rooms are filling with smoke – well figuratively anyway – and plans are for the hatching.

Chester Borrows delivering his valedictory speech in parliament (Phil Smith, Radio NZ)

Some manifesto items are being released and as promised the National Party in Opposition are releasing eight papers this year for discussion. Tomorrow is apparently the date of the launch of the National Law and Order Discussion Paper. Funnily enough, even though I am a card-carrying member of that organisation, and my subscription has been banked, I have not received my flyer or invitation for this event. 

The government has been in receipt of the final report from the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group since the end of August and no doubt before too long we will see the response. Other political parties will be finalising their positions on matters of justice, law and order. This is because every election has a party pushing the hot button of crime and punishment and those who have no policy are doomed to fail.

Law and Order is such a vote grabber. Even in 2017, when there was little contested in the justice policy space, there was a scrap over police numbers and how many were needed. NZ First said 1,800 and Labour said 1,000. National had a very definitive 888 as I recall. But Labour won the negotiation and needed a coalition partner so 1,800 it was and is.

I doubt many people applied their vote to this issue, but the highest bidder is deemed to care the most and that is how the colours are flown. Evidence has got nothing to do with it.

But the reason why this button is always pushed hardest in Opposition is because the public, despite their suspicion of politicians, especially in campaign mode, keep rewarding those who promise to be most punitive. Kiwis are addicted to punishment.

Paremoremo Maximum Security Prison, Albany. Photo: David Hallett/Getty Images

Politicians are only responding to the reward the public bestows. Like laboratory rats, they push the button that drops the biscuit. How can we blame them?

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“Take the bikes off the bikies,” was Norm Kirk in 1972. Hard Labour and longer sentences belonged to Labour’s Phil Goff and Helen Clark in 1999. Three strikes was ACT in 2008. 600 more Police was National in 2008.

But if New Zealand was wanting to use evidence to better the system that would keep us most safe what would we see the political aspirants’ campaign hardest about?

  • More use of therapy and rehabilitation earlier in sentences and keeping people on parole longer because it incentivises better behaviour. 
  • We would see parties campaigning on more education in prisons and teaching to more appropriate learning styles to prevent young people not learning in classrooms and going on to create victims when they should be in school.
  • Politicians would campaign on a better and fairer process for victims who get dragged into a justice system which is conducted in a foreign language namely ‘legalese’, using outdated processes which are equally traumatic with the offending at the centre of the case being prosecuted. Victims of many crimes say they would never report again in the same circumstances because they have been so injured by the way we do ‘justice’ these days.
  • Parties would campaign on de-politicising the law and order debate and insist on cross-parliament accords on justice policy, so people win over politics. 
  • Better healthcare in prisons particularly mental health with 91% of people in prisons having a diagnoseable mental health disorder or drug dependency, without counting history of head-trauma. 
  • Better access for families particularly children to their parents in prison creating an incentive to behave and learn so families are safer and more aspirational when prisoners get released. 
  • There would be campaigns demanding better access to Restorative Justice Conferencing because this practise is the most effective against recidivism, even more so if accompanied by mentoring. 
  • Parties would campaign on work opportunities, education, and skills training for prisoners because the common denominators in prisoners returning to jails is a lack of education, skills, and work. It is easier to hate than it is to care enough to do something meaningful.
  • We would recognise that drug charging polices on personal use possessory offending has been based on myths and a lack of understanding in outdated legislation that was drafted in the mid-1970’s when people knew very little about the tide of drug use that was about to hit us.

But these are all seen as “soft on crime” initiatives. Better to campaign on longer, tougher, more punitive sentences and policies. Nobody votes for principles with an evidence base in law and order policy. Such a level-headed approach would be a vote loser not a vote winner.

And we keep doing it to ourselves. As much as we campaign about media reporting, we keep buying the news. As much as we complain about shallow political rhetoric, we keep rewarding those that push the button the hardest, for the weakest of reasons with the least evidence to prove it will ever work.


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