Being ‘tough on crime’ is easy, but it doesn't work

Opinion: Being 'tough on crime’ contradicts evidence that prisons are a training ground for harder criminals, says Bex Silver.

Roof of Mt Eden prison in Auckland

It is easy to be hard on crime. It’s the popular thing to do, especially in the lead up to a national election.

National and Labour want to build more youth justice facilities and National want longer sentences for criminal offending. Act, meanwhile, is proposing 1500 more beds over the next three years. This shows a stark disconnect from the reality on the ground where we have a national staffing issue, leading to prison units being shut down and offenders leaving prison without engaging in any rehabilitation or treatment. Adding more prisoners to an already over-stretched system is a recipe for a disaster.

As someone who works in the criminal justice sector, the recent policy proposals by major political parties make we wonder whether politicians are more concerned about appearing hard on crime than they are with reducing criminal offending.

This long-standing punitive approach to crime withstands the plethora of evidence and research that disproves its effectiveness for reducing re-offending. On the contrary, criminal justice experts and statisticians have consistently said harsher sentencing increases recidivism.

Why do we continue to entertain the ‘tough on crime’ narrative? My guess is that politicians are subject to the approval of the public who are getting swept up in common myths about crime and public safety. The public deserves better, to have accurate information to inform their vote in this election.

Some common myths that need busting

Myth 1: Crime is the root of society’s problems

New Zealand is ranked as the fourth safest country in the world in the Global Peace Index. It is easy to get caught up in the onslaught of crime reporting, but compared with the world around us, we aren’t doing too badly.

Crime is a very real part of society, particularly for its victims, but it’s a symptom of larger problems, rather than the problem itself.

The psychology of criminal conduct tells us that the common determining factors often relate to substance addiction, family dysfunction, anti-social associates, and a history of criminal offending.

Within the New Zealand context, other factors such as poverty, housing insecurity, truancy and the long-lasting effects of colonialism have a significant role to play. People will continue to offend until these wider factors are addressed and sufficiently treated.

Myth 2: Incarceration corrects criminal behaviour

Calling our prisons “correctional facilities” is ironic because they do little to correct criminal behaviour. Over two thirds of people released from prison will re-offend within three years, and this only includes reported offending; unreported recidivism will be much higher.

Placing people in an environment with others who have untreated anti-social thinking exposes them to more serious offending behaviours and criminal networks.

Young people under 24 are particularly vulnerable to becoming more entrenched in their anti-authority thinking, as well as gang recruitment. Prison is nothing more than a training ground for harder criminals.

The Department of Corrections itself reports that community-based rehabilitation programmes are more effective than prison-based ones for this very reason. Removing people from their family, community and places of employment does nothing to correct their criminal conduct, and only works to decrease their chances of successful reintegration.

Though prison may give the perception of immediate safety, in the longer term it decreases safety for victims and the community.

Myth 3: Prison and youth justice facilities keep the community safe

One of the most common arguments I hear in favour of incarceration is that it keeps victims and the wider public safe. Though I can sympathise with the sentiment behind this reasoning, it doesn’t stack up.

First, statistics published by the Department of Corrections highlight that the longer the sentence, the higher the likelihood of re-offending.

Furthermore, prison produces tougher criminals being released back into the community who go onto commit more serious crimes. Though prison may give the perception of immediate safety, in the longer term it decreases safety for victims and the community.

I would rather have a neighbour who has engaged in meaningful rehabilitation than someone who has spent years locked away in a prison surrounded by serious offenders and gang networks.

Myth 4: Crime is an individual problem

Criminal offending does not occur in a vacuum. Individuals are part of families, gangs, neighbourhoods, and communities who can either encourage or discourage their criminal lifestyle.

The most marginalised people in our society are also the ones who are disproportionately perpetrating crime. Incarcerated people are more likely to come from a background of poverty, homelessness and untreated mental health problems.

Last year, a sample of 63 children involved in ram raids revealed that 95 percent of them came from homes where at least one act of violence had been inflicted on a family member by another. If this doesn’t persuade us to start taking a family and community-centred approach to mitigating crime, I don’t know what will.

Punishing an individual and placing them back into the same environment won’t work. When a flower isn’t doing well, we don’t kill it, we change the soil and climate conditions.

Myth 5: Once a criminal, always a criminal

This has been used to justify harsher punishment for young people committing crime. The opposite is true. Once we label someone as “an offender” they internalise the label and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

People who already feel marginalised will cling onto this as their sense of identity or because they’ve been told they are not good enough to belong in our communities. Judging people for their past actions and excluding them from society or employment will not help them forge a new pathway in life. People can change. If I didn’t believe that I would have given up my career as a social worker long ago. People need others to believe in their potential and to give them a chance.

When we vote, we should ask ourselves: do we want to be hard on criminals or do we want to reduce crime?

Reducing crime

The ‘we need to get tough on crime’ narrative dominating this year’s election promises victims a false sense of safety which contradicts the comprehensive and compelling evidence that prisons are a training ground for harder criminals. It’s a narrative driven by opportunistic politicians wanting an easy vote; politicians who claim to know better than the experts in this field.

When we vote, we should ask ourselves: do we want to be hard on criminals or do we want to reduce crime? Addressing the root causes of criminal behaviour will require a nuanced response, one that considers the multi-systemic factors that affect a person’s decision making. Criminal offending is a complex problem, and requires a complex response.

Incarceration, isolation and punishment is not working. It’s not keeping our communities safe from crime. We need a community and family-focused approach, so people feel more valued within society than they do in gangs and prisons.

Bex Silver is a graduate of the University of Auckland’s Master of Social Work programme, affiliated with its Faculty of Education and Social Work, and a social work practitioner within the justice sector.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland

This article was first published on Newsroom, Being ‘tough on crime’ is too easy – and ignores the evidence, 21 September, 2023 

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