With the figures for recorded crime trending very much in the right direction, it is difficult for the Government to bang too insistently on that old standby, the law and order drum. All it can do is identify a particular problem and promise action to remedy it. Hence, the announcement of the National Party's "whole of government action plan on tackling gangs". Predictably, it contains strident measures targeted to address fears raised by gang violence and gang-related crime. These can be fairly much dismissed as electioneering. It would be a shame, however, if the more useful aspects of the package also come to naught.
The headline-catching proposals would see drug-sniffer beagles used at domestic airports and ferry terminals to intercept drug shipments and large amounts of cash moved around the country by gangs, and 24-hour GPS tracking of gang members following their release from prison. The latter would prevent them associating with other members at, say, gang headquarters.
Neither policy is likely to come to fruition any time soon.
The widespread use of sniffer dogs would be expensive, prohibitively so unless there was stronger evidence that gangs control the drug trade. GPS tracking, for its part, enters the sort of territory that distinguished the ill-conceived attempts of several local councils to ban the wearing of gang insignia in public places. These ran into issues associated with the freedoms and articles of non-discrimination enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act.
The Police Minister, Anne Tolley, said there had not been any Ministry of Justice vetting of whether the intent of the GPS tracking would have similar human rights implications. It does not take much, however, to see issues around freedom of association. And, as sociologist and gang expert Jarrod Gilbert pointed out, such monitoring was guaranteed to make gangs more unified and defiant.
It is a shame that such measures will detract from the major plus of the package - a multi-agency intelligence unit based at police national headquarters. This would involve officials from Corrections, Justice, the Ministry of Social Development, Education, Health, Te Puni Kokiri, Housing NZ, Inland Revenue and Customs, as well as the police. A more co-ordinated approach nationally has been needed for some time to collect and combine intelligence on gang activity, while, importantly, also identifying young people at risk of joining gangs. An attempt could then be made to steer them in a different direction. The Gang Intelligence Centre would fit this bill provided it was adequately resourced. The omens, unfortunately, are not good. Just $1.6 million over two years will be allotted to it in next year's Budget.
The package also promises enhanced rehabilitation programmes for gang members in prison. This would include greater access to drug and alcohol treatment, education and job-training. That is commendable, but much of this is surely already being done as part of the Government's aim of reducing reoffending by 25 per cent within five years. Given gang members' relative prominence in crime statistics, they must surely have been near the head of the queue when the Government allotted $65 million for rehabilitation work in the 2012 Budget. No further money appears to have been allocated now.
In sum, therefore, it is difficult to take National's plan too seriously. It provides every impression of being thrown together hurriedly. It includes some questionable statistics on the extent of the gang problem. It will almost certainly have little impact. It does, however, acknowledge some people's alarm over gang activities.
That, for National, was reason enough to advance it.