I was depressed by an opinion piece titled "No soft option for crime" penned by the former National Party candidate for Napier, David Elliott, in Hawke's Bay Today on June 25.

Elliott parroted the "tough on crime" mantra we're seeing from the National Party but undermined his argument by making a link between declines in violent crime in New York State in the 1990s, what he called the "carrots, sticks and broken windows" approach.

His assumption was that the "stick" or tougher laws and longer sentences were what drove this decrease in crime.

This reflects "popular wisdom" but it bears no sensible examination and what Elliott writes is nonsense.


There is no doubt that crime rates dropped steeply in New York in the 1990s and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, loudly took the credit for this through his strategy of prosecuting petty crime, which became known as the "broken windows" policy.

Giuliani has a truly impressive talent for self-promotion as I discovered when Sir Paul Holmes introduced me to him on his world tour after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

David Elliott's and Rudy Giuliani's position is disproved by the undeniable fact that crime rates not only dropped in New York in the 1990s, they also dropped by similar amounts across America.

This happened across the board and occurred where there were no initiatives like Giuliani's "broken windows" policy.

What cannot be denied is that there's about half as much violent crime in the United States than there was 25 years ago.

What is truly fascinating is the debate about what caused this.

There is strong academic support for the theory that the drop in the crime rate in the 1990s was the result of the availability of legal abortion following the US Supreme Court "Roe v Wade" ruling in 1973.

This is based on the idea that "the children who were not born would have been disproportionately likely to grow up in poverty and on welfare with a young and poorly educated parent".

This quote is from Robert Barro, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and he goes on to say "It may well be correct".


He further observes that those states with the highest rates of abortion in the 1970s, such as New York and California, experienced the sharpest drop in crime in the 1990s.

Other explanations for this drop in crime rates range from the reduction in alcohol consumption, fewer people carrying cash and an ageing population.

This debate just underlines the reality that the kinds of simplistic nostrums Elliott promotes as fact are seldom to be trusted and that reducing crime is not and cannot be related to bigger jails and more prisoners.

Policies that result in more and more prisoners are likely to have perverse outcomes. The Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, published a paper on rising prison costs in March of this year.

Gluckman was appointed by the John Key National Government and his office's findings, for example those on methamphetamine residue, have been accepted by all parties without question.

A key finding in the "Using evidence to build a better justice system" paper is that the evidence shows the high rates of imprisonment supported by Elliott and his National Party increases crime rather than reduces it.

Part of the Executive Summary says this: "The strong evidence base related to what fuels the prison 'pipeline' suggests that prisons are extremely expensive training grounds for further offending, building criminals careers by teaching them criminal skills, damaging their employment, accommodation and family prospects and compounding mental health and substance abuse issues".

Aspiring parliamentary candidates like Elliott should read this document from end to end and for this reason I sent him a copy last Thursday.

Simply put, it tells us that putting people in jail makes crime worse.

There is, however, still much to be learned from New York State's approach to penal reform.

By the end of the 1990s, New Yorkers were sick of forking out vast sums to support the kind of burgeoning prison population we saw happening under Elliott's defeated National Party Government.

Over the next 12 years the state managed to reduce its prison population by 26 per cent, while violent crime dropped by 31 per cent and property crime by 29 per cent.

This result is close to the Labour Party's announced objective of reducing prisoner numbers by 30 per cent and demonstrates that such targets are achievable.

Offering drug and alcohol treatment as alternatives to jail sentences contributed to this result as did greater opportunities for education during jail sentences incentivised by reductions in minimum terms.

Instead of building mega jails as National planned for New Zealand, New York State is now closing jails and selling the sites.

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.