Friday, July 09, 2004

Brash on Crime

It seems like all the other NZ bloggers are talking about crime and Don Brash's latest speech (skip to the summary/conclusion if you can't be bothered reading it all), so I might as well chip in with a few thoughts of my own.

Most of the details I don't really know enough about to comment. For example, targeting organised crime and "well-known criminal families" certainly sounds like a good idea, but I haven't a clue whether National's policies there are likely to improve things or not. Though the move to make greater use of DNA fingerprinting is surely a good one. Helen Clark even said she was open to the idea (I can't remember where I saw that - The Press, perhaps?).

But looking at the big picture, Brash's main focus seems to be on putting more people in prison, for longer. So let's look at that:
To operate the prison service now costs around $600 million annually. If the prison population increased by 50% as a result of the abolition of parole (which is possible if offending rates do not reduce), the increase in annual operating cost could rise by around $300 million after about five years. Additional prisons will also involve significant one-off capital costs, possibly of up to $1 billion, though to keep taxpayer costs as low as possible we would contract the running of these to the private sector. [Footnote:] The country's only privately managed prison, the Auckland Central Remand Prison, beats the state operated prisons on almost every measure, including cost, education and health programmes.

I heard a while ago that even the Greens concede that private prisons are run much better, but they nevertheless are opposed to all privatisation as a matter of principle. In other words, they're opposed to what's best for the country if it clashes with their ideology. Disgraceful. (Assuming my information there is accurate. Let me know if you have evidence to the contrary - a link would be good!)

But back to Brash, one must ask whether those massive costs are really worth it. As far as I'm concerned, the only people who should be imprisoned are those who pose a significant threat to society. If there is good evidence to suggest that a crime was a one-off event (a crime of passion, say), and the offender poses little future risk to society, then he should not go to jail. There simply isn't any point. Of course, a serious crime will require a proportionally serious punishment for the sake of deterrence, but we can surely come up with alternatives to prison which would benefit, rather than cost, society at large. Perhaps a huge (and I mean huge) fine and several years (hell, decades!) of community service, for a start. [Update: Perhaps corporal punishment is worth considering too.]

'Rehabilitation' seems to be a dirty word these days. The major parties are both emphasising how 'tough on crime' they are, but seem more interested in punishing offenders than protecting the rest of us. Imprisoning now-harmless people does nothing to protect the rest of us, it just wastes our money. A prisoner should be released the moment we have sufficient evidence (if ever we do) that he is successfully rehabilitated and no longer poses a significant risk.

Since the purpose of prisons is to protect society from threats, they should aim to neutralise that threat while they can. That is, they should try to rehabilitate prisoners so that they no longer pose a threat to society. If this can be done (and I don't know enough to say whether it can - realistically - or not), then it is surely preferable to releasing a criminal just as dangerous as when he went in.

On the other hand, if we have good reason to think that a dangerous criminal is beyond all hope, then he should probably never be released. I guess the difficulty is in accurately judging whether an individual is 'safe' or not. I don't know whether there is any reliable (or even semi-reliable) way of doing this.

Brash suggested careful monitoring of released criminals to prevent re-offending. This sounds like a very sensible idea. What makes less sense is suggesting this as a replacement for parole. We should be aiming to keep our prisons as empty as possible, and releasing offenders as soon as it is safe to do so. Post-release monitoring is a method which (presumably) increases our margin of safety here. As such, its implementation would give us reason to consider releasing offenders earlier, rather than later. (Admittedly, this reasoning assumes current practices to be tolerably safe, a premise Brash et al might not accept.)

Prison should be a last resort, only to be utilized when it is necessary for the safety of society. I imagine various lobby groups for victims of crime would disagree with this, due to their desire for retribution. However, despite being natural and understandable, this drive for revenge is not one which ought to influence policy. I would hope that our political leaders base their position on more rational grounds, seeking what is truly best for our society. Although there were some good points in Brash's speech, I'm concerned by his apparent focus on filling up prisons. He is appealing to the worst in people, and I can't help but wonder whether the effects of this will spill over, preventing us from realising what is best for society.

6 comments:

  1. > As far as I'm concerned, the only people who should be imprisoned are those who pose a significant threat to society.

    the legal system serves a couple of other purposes - one of these is deterant to the person and another is as a guide to what will be rewarded or punished to society.

    > Perhaps a huge (and I mean huge) fine and several years (hell, decades!) of community service, for a start.

    There would be an optimal balance between various forms of punishment. I think community service would in many cases be insufficient. Having said that in general I agree prison is a wasteful method.

    > That is, they should try to rehabilitate prisoners so that they no longer pose a threat to society.

    It is very easy to make a prisoner harmless to society. the problem is that it involves various degrees of harm to be visited upon that person.
    there is a scale from making him incapable of commiting the crime (psychologically or physically) to not doing anything at all to avoid breaching his rights. personally I think 20 years in jail is worse than a short period of er.... "intensive reform" and I would say it is impossible to have a criminal who is beyond that sort of reform.

    There is also the low cost method of inprisonment to consider. Release the no hope prisoners somwhere where they cannot hurt anyone (except maybe eachother) and dont let them come back. 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

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  2. "the legal system serves a couple of other purposes"

    For sure - but one doesn't need prison to achieve those ends - other forms of punishment can serve as deterrants etc.

    As for rehabilitation, the ideal solution would allow the ex-criminal to become a productive member of society, and a flourishing individual. Neither of these is possible if we inflict too much damage in our attempts to 'incapacitate' him. The very idea of 'incapacitation' is not one I'm very comfortable with - I'd much rather enable than disable people. Far better if we can genuinely rehabilitate them; educate rather than brainwash; but I grant this ideal might not always be a realistic option... 

    Posted by Richard

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  3. >For sure - but one doesn't need prison to achieve those ends

    But one might find that prison was the most effective tool for some people.

    > the ideal solution would allow the ex-criminal to become a productive member of society, and a flourishing individual

    Aiming for the ideal solution is futile
    The best you can do is a MORE productive member of society and a MORE flourishing individual. I agree that it is good to have the latter as one of the aims.

    > Neither of these is possible if we inflict too much damage in our attempts to 'incapacitate' him. The very idea of 'incapacitation' is not one I'm very comfortable with - I'd much rather enable than disable people.

    One has many tools at ones disposal. efficient usage of all of them will in the end result in many positive ones being used but at times a stick will be used with the carrot. I have no problem in theory with a prison that was vastly higher standards of living than outside the prison if that is what it takes to rehabilitate. But I expect that one will get the best results using almost all the tools to some extent. for example one will use fines and prison and psychological strategies and whatever else is required. the decision to limit hte range of tools available will reduce hte effectiveness.

    > Far better if we can genuinely rehabilitate them; educate rather than brainwash;..

    I dont think there is any difference. for some poeple crime is a rational choice, as such education is futile. In fact it is likely that LESS people are criminal than would be criminal if they had all of the information. So your education must be specificaly directed to teaching them certain things, whether they are factualy true or not. My interest in utalitarianism howver is unshakeable and thus if it is utalitarian to use brainwashing then brain washing it is... as yu can see on my blog - if it is castration so be it if it is torture so be it..
    Of course one must be careful to ensure these are indeed serving utalitarian aims as opposed to somthing else. 

    Posted by Anonymous

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  4. by hte way that was me above.
     

    Posted by Geniusnz

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  5. There's good reason to oppose privatisation of prisons on principle. There's no evidence to suggest that prisons as we know them will always need to exist. Privatising them makes an industry out of them, creating vested interest in their continuation, in much same way as the Military-Industrial Complex.

    ReplyDelete

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