Crime and punishment neither black nor white

By Jay Kuten

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Occasionally I meet Americans who, on learning where I live, tell me they've once visited New Zealand and enjoyed the visit.

Asking for details, I've frequently been told they were solely in Auckland - much to my chagrin. It's a mate to those New Zealanders who tell of their trip to the States which turns out to be a visit to Disneyland. Not exactly the United States.

There is one tourist destination which I can recommend for the breadth of what can be learned there about the States and about this country too - Alcatraz.

The notorious San Francisco harbour prison, originally a Civil War fort and later home to infamous and dangerous men, is now a museum. It's a museum that illustrates man's capability for inhumanity, both of the inmates and the authorities, the Bureau of Prisons.

Almost hidden among the massive engine of cruelty is one small monument to human dignity.

It is a room with a poster series depicting the Restorative Justice Programme, which poses an alternative to the dehumanising effects of incarceration.

Moreover, the credit is given to New Zealand and our own little patch for its efforts to create a better approach to dealing with criminal conduct.

While the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, New Zealand seems to be working hard to catch up. Right-wing governments appeal to voters with messages about law and order and about getting tough on crime.

But over the past several decades, since the 1980s in the US, the rate of violent crimes has decreased while the rate of incarceration remains constant.

While New Zealand does not favour the lengthy sentences common to the US, its prisons hold almost the same numbers in proportion to population. This at a time when studies of recidivism rates indicate that prisons are failures when it comes to rehabilitation and to deterrence - that leaves only punishment as a rationale for incarceration, which has a certain appeal when the crime is particularly violent and heinous.

Proponents of restorative justice, the New Zealand-initiated alternative to incarceration, point to its effectiveness in humanising perpetrator and victim to one another, helping the former to develop genuine remorse - so inhibiting repetition of criminal violence - and the latter to achieve a modicum of healing from the residual helplessness and anger of victimhood. Society's further benefit is avoidance of the wasteful cost of keeping people in prison.

While low-level violent offenders are usually considered for this alternative, another distinct group might also benefit.

Gretchen Morgenson writes a highly lucid business column for the New York Times and she recently described the serious management failures at General Motors, which encouraged wilful neglect of a faulty design in the ignition switch of the Chevrolet Cobal. The flaw allowed the switch to turn off spontaneously and, with it, the engine, brakes and the air bags. At a minimum, the result has been 13 deaths and numerous injuries.

The flaw was known about as early as 2000 but institutionally ignored and buried through corporate buck-passing. Some 15 lower-echelon employees have been fired, but Morgenson suggests GM executives might well be required to meet families of the victims to let them experience a little of the anguish their indifference has unleashed.

Morgenson also mentions the failure of accountability in the financial industry disasters, and that would apply here. While the Supreme Court gave the Lombard directors - former ministers Sir Douglas Graham, Bill Jeffries, Michael Reeves and Lawrence Bryant - a wrist-slap of community work for their misleading investors, it would have better for these men and others from failed finance companies to meet face-to-face with the thousands of mum and dad investors whose life savings they caused to vanish.

There are many forms of violence besides the physical. If we're not going to jail those who rob with a fountain pen, at least we can oblige them to restore some dignity to their victims with personal apologies.

Jay Kuten is an American-trained forensic psychiatrist who emigrated to New Zealand for the fly fishing. He spent 40 years comforting the afflicted and intends to spend the rest afflicting the comfortable.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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