Crime is on the rise, we’re going to be reminded, and the only way to keep the baying wolves from our own doors is to crack down – put them in prison faster, and for longer terms. We’ll hear this from both sides of the isle, in some form or other. In New Zealand, no politician can afford to be seen as soft on crime. It’s become such an important part of the political discourse that to not use ‘tough’ on crime sounds weak.
This is all well and good, except, of course, crime isn’t on the rise. Overall, the trend for crime has been down since the 1990s. The data on this is clear. The gangs of unwashed crooks who lie in wait, ready to take hold of the streets the moment that we relax our grip, those murder-burglars with their rusty motorcycles and blood-stained leather pants – exist only in the minds of our politicians and their PR teams. They are a grim fantasy that we, as a country, must refuse to give in to.
Longer sentences and cheaper, nastier prisons don’t reduce crime. We know this well, and it’s been true for as long as prisons have existed. Beating up on criminals, far from being a fair expression of anger by a wronged population, is mostly just a good excuse to push the poor and the disadvantaged around some more. It has nothing to do with reducing crime or keeping us safe. Penal populism, the drive to buy votes with fear, is really nothing but talk. You can watch it take over, live on television, as election season heats up ahead of September. That’s not to say prison isn’t important, it is – we just need see it as part of a solution, not as the solution in and of itself.
The thing is, good work is actually being done in the Department of Corrections right now. Smart work. The goal of reducing reoffending by 25% by 2017 has left the government with no choice but to let cooler heads take over, and to put the effort into finding out what really works, at least for the time being. It’s not enough, but it’s something. The out-of-control rise of our prison population, which had previously outstripped all of our OECD contemporaries, has actually slowed in the last couple of years. The hangover from last election’s burst of penal rhetoric has finally dissipated, and we’re starting to reap the benefits, just in time to have it all taken away again, perhaps.