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Lock ’em up and throw away the solutions that might actually work

The billions being poured into police and prisons would be better spent on demonstrably effective social policies, but the evidence suggests early interventions towards the most vulnerable children may not be in their best interests, writes criminologist Elizabeth Stanley.

Prime minister Bill English attached himself to well-trodden law and order election politics earlier this month, as he bolstered police ranks by another 1100 officers. This Safer Communities package was furnished with strong messages, not least that the world doesn’t owe anyone “a living”. Instead, families and communities must “continuously adapt” and resiliently engage in “quiet heroism” as a response to increasing economic precariousness. The expectation is that everyone – including those with health or disability issues – “can live independently”.

We are also entering, it appears, a new era of state interventions. Mirroring practices from the late 1950s to the early 1980s – the horrific experiences and legacies of which largely remain shielded from public view – the government is targeting “problem” children and their families for processing. We will deal, once and for all, with the “regulars in the government system”. Welfare dependents had better look out, as might our new economic risks: the thousand or so five-year-olds whose sorry lives are each destined to cost us well over quarter a million dollars.

Last year, the Treasury mapped out four key indicators for children having poor outcomes later in life. In order of magnitude, having a parent with a prison or community sentence dominated. Living in a poor family that was supported by benefits, having a mother with no formal qualifications, and family violence also took their tolls. Children who experienced all four key indicators were far more likely than their peers to leave school without qualifications and, by the age of 35, to have received criminal justice sentences and be on a benefit. In short, what goes around, comes around.

Despite this evidence, the government is committed to ensuring that as many parents as possible are now given a community or custodial sentence. Police authorities are “unashamedly targeting offenders to ensure they are off our streets”. Facing the challenges of increasingly stretched District Courts, it is no wonder that Ministry of Justice employees have cheered themselves up with Timberlake lip syncs and corridor Congas.

Still, the new police minister, Paula Bennett, consoles us that “the criminals we’re locking up are more of the really bad ones” (Radio NZ interview). The data could suggest otherwise: in December 2016, a greater number of prisoners were incarcerated for dishonesty (20 per cent) and drug (13 per cent) offences than in December 2009 (when they accounted for 17 per cent and 9 per cent of prisoners respectively).

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

Over 10,000 people are now held in our prisons. In line with the ramifications of colonial economic and socio-cultural stresses, combined with a dose of institutionalised racism, most prisoners are Māori. Many return time and again. Imprisonment is criminogenic – as Department of Corrections research indicates, “the more time in the past someone has been in prison, the more likely they are to return”. Despite falling crime rates, the numbers on remand have surged and sentenced prisoners serve increasingly longer sentences.

Keen to break further records, the government is happily extending capacities, with an eye-watering three billion dollar top-up: $503 million into police operations, as well as $2.5 billion to cover the construction and operational costs of almost 1800 new prison beds in Ngawha, Mt Eden and Waikeria over the next four to five years.

These lock ’em up intentions are carefully wrapped in benign discourses of building safer communities, preventing crime, assisting vulnerable children or helping people escape gang life. Families will be offered a helping hand. But, those who fail to take it can expect the worst – removal of benefits, removal of children, removal of parents.

A responsibilising tone can tug at our retributive heart strings. If people don’t want to be helped, they should be compelled to be helped. And surely early interventions towards the most vulnerable children will be in their best interests?

Sadly, the best international evidence suggests otherwise.

A major longitudinal study, the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, has followed a cohort of about 4,300 young people who started secondary school in 1998. Its exemplary research shows that the common-sense targeting of at-risk children is counter-productive.

Doing nothing can often have far better outcomes in reducing serious offending than doing something. Youngsters who are sucked into the system “for their best interest” have worse trajectories than their peers. Labelling and stigmatizing children and their families creates self-fulfilling prophecies – after all, this permanent suspect population will always be observed and found wanting.

The solution is minimal personal intervention against an enhanced backdrop of provisions towards education, health and community services under which children, their families and communities can thrive. Our own longitudinal Dunedin study similarly shows that youth with criminal propensities are less likely to engage in crime if they have educational, employment, family and other meaningful pro-social ties.

We, of course, are heading in the opposite direction. While we hope to rid ourselves of burglars, gang members and drug-takers, we have yet to come to the realisation that the solutions will not come from cop cars, “out of home” care homes or prison cells at the bottom of the cliff, but from preventative measures at the top. Surely that extra three billion dollars destined for our police and prisons would be far better spent on demonstrably effective social policies instead?

Dr Elizabeth Stanley is a Reader in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington.


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