Crime, politicians respond: Russel Norman

Russel Norman, Green Party co-leader, responds to readers' suggestion son tackling crime.

Readers: We need to be seen to be tougher on criminals with longer sentences rather than parole after a few years.

Norman: Every time our community is touched by violence there are calls for tougher, longer sentences. I think that's understandable but I don't think it's the answer. Calling for longer sentences without meaningful work, education and character development programmes for prisoners is a cop-out. Not only does it fail to improve prisoners' behaviour it hardens the prisoner and his family and friends, helps create a criminal underclass and adds to the cycles of crime from generation to generation; no one is made safer. The Green Party believes that we need a greater focus on justice and security. This must include restoration for victims and consequences for offenders which incorporate elements of both punishment and rehabilitation. The Greens are strong advocates for a greater focus on restorative justice and community based justice programmes as these tend to improve outcomes for both victims and offenders.

Readers: Why can prisons not be a tougher and harsher environment for criminals?

Norman: What we all want is for our families and friends, and for ourselves, to be safe from violence. I'm really concerned that prisons, at least the mainstream type of prisons we generally have in New Zealand, are universities of crime, where young offenders without proper help learn from hardened criminals how to commit even worse crimes. Some states in America, for example, have extremely hard-core prisons which brutalise offenders. Their harsh prison programmes include chain gangs and hard and meaningless labour which might help right-wing politicians get elected, but it doesn't help crime statistics. It merely turns small-time crooks into hardened criminals before letting them loose again on society. Instead, stronger monitoring and support systems are needed to change the behaviour of people who offend. New Zealand has some of the most innovative programs in the world, such as Kia Marama for sex offenders, and faith based units and Maori focus units. These need to be rolled out more widely.

Readers: The police can be given more powers and rather than focus on human rights.

Norman: I believe human rights are universal, and that any one of us, even if we're law abiding citizens, might one day find ourselves needing protection from the police. Giving police guns is only likely to escalate the level of violence, and that's the last thing we need. I really believe the only honest way forward is to look at the real causes of crime. Crime is bad for everyone. We believe the best way to reduce crime is by addressing the causes of crime and changing criminal behaviour for the better. Justice Thorpe in his report into miscarriages of justice suggested there may be 12 people wrongfully imprisoned in New Zealand for serious offences. The right to a fair trial is not just a 'soft on crime' bit of hand wringing. It is what prevents ordinary people being locked in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Readers: A call for juries to be given the full facts about criminals rather than supression of previous convictions.

Norman: There have been recent cases where I've personally disagreed with the failure to disclose previous offences to the jury. However, clearly this is a balancing act and everyone deserves a fair trial, even if they've previously broken the law. The recent changes to the Evidence Act do now provide more discretion for judges to allow information about previous convictions into a trial where it is demonstrably relevant and will not prejudice a fair trial. However in general a person should be judged on the facts of the case, not on whether they have already been found guilty and punished for a different crime.

Readers: More work to be done with youth to keep them out of trouble.

Norman: Our goal is a society where people feel safe and secure, not one where we live in fear of each other behind locked doors and cells. To get there we need to create a society that embraces rather than marginalises young people. Every child deserves a fair go at life - and that means a decent education, healthcare when they need it, and a safe and secure home, regardless of how much money their mum and dad make. Now is the time to address the inequality that is rife in our society.

Teachers and social workers can already identify many of the kids that are likely to become serious repeat offenders. Why don't we spend the money preventing them becoming criminals rather than on locking them up after they have done the deed? We know what to do, but there is more political mileage in being 'tough on crime' than putting in the long term, and often unnoticed, investment in our young people that would actually make the difference.

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