• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.
As we enter the home straight of the general election, I've cast my eyes over the justice policies of the main parties and, because I'm currently marking criminal justice essays at the University of Canterbury, I figured I'd give them a grade.
National Party gang prospect David Seymour is unlikely to have much impact on anything, but he does deserve credit for his idea of giving prisoners time off their sentence for undertaking literacy courses. Hardly a silver bullet, but we need creative ideas. Whatever credit he gains he loses by wanting to expand the "three strikes" legislation - there is no stronger symbol of our "get tough" on crime approach, which is not ageing well. B-
For a short while it appeared the Greens' primary approach to crime was to celebrate people who commit benefit fraud, but that didn't play out too well with the public. Credit goes to the idea of halting the building of any new prisons but given our current muster is growing and we are at capacity, there's no mention of what we'll do with sentenced prisoners. A greater emphasis on Restorative Justice is a key pillar but former justice spokesman David Clendon may wonder what happened to that idea after his messy divorce from the party could not be reconciled. Drawing and quartering the people polluting our rivers would have earned an A from me. C+
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Given its talk of positivity and a cloak of optimism, Labour's policy is about as bland as its previous four leaders. There is no Jacindamania here. While I'm in favour of higher police numbers there is only the merest mention of addressing the drivers of crime. I know that Ardern favours a Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate unsafe convictions, which is terrific, but it doesn't rate a mention in their policies. Deputy leader Kelvin Davis mooted a kaupapa Maori prison, which may have some merit but we should be doing all we can to reduce Maori over-representation in prisons, not turning them into marae. C-
If there is a definitive measure of failure in our country, the Maori imprisonment rate is it. I was surprised to find no specific policy front and centre for the Maori Party. A closer look and we find a range of policy initiatives from the predictable goal of ridding the justice system of institutional racism through to the practical one of increasing funding to community law centres (a personal favourite of mine). But after nine years holding governmental portfolios, this is an important area about which the party can boast little. B-
The National Party gets the most points for effort and for pandering. Boot camps are among the most derided reform programmes among anybody who cares to look at the evidence. But they ring true to the public; discipline and good order are intuitively attractive when you think of young scallywags. At the launch of the policy were a group of angry dairy owners understandably concerned about being terrorised by robberies, who had demanded tough action. This policy spoke to them and others like them and was therefore an expensive campaign ad, not an effort to solve a difficult problem. Leader Bill English's targeting of at-risk families has been sadly underplayed in this election, when it should have been front and centre (and deserves an A). Instead we'll largely remember that he and Paula Bennett were keen to remove human rights from gang members. Given the long-term trend of crime is down, when did we get to a situation deemed so bad we start attacking the fundamental principles that underpin our democracy? D
New Zealand First
Speaking with NZ First MP Denis O'Rourke about justice matters, I was surprised by his enlightened views, but the formal polices of NZ First are as tired and conservative as one might imagine from a party whose supporters' average age is death. NZ First policies include a hardline minimum imprisonment term of 40 years for murder, banning the gangs, introducing cumulative sentencing, and reintroducing laws of public intoxication. We'd need to build two prisons if we enacted half of them. They also want to ask courts to give judgments that make common sense, which reads like a policy my grandmother would have suggested. And she is dead. F
The Opportunities Party
Top offers the most radical agenda of the lot, with a target of reducing our prison muster of 10,300 to match the OECD average - meaning a drop of around 4000 prisoners in NZ. The ambition to address the shackled elephant in the room should be applauded. Understanding the new prison we need to build is going to cost $1 billion, and shrinking our prison population by 4000 is a theoretical annual saving of $400m, that's a lot of tax cuts or hip replacement operations that is instead tied up in our enormous justice problem. Given they unfortunately won't make it into Parliament, my grade is a bone throw. A
Frontloading prevention caught my attention until I realised with Captain Sensible, Peter Dunne, exiting his ship, it matters little what the party says on anything. WD
All in all, pretty uninspiring stuff. If this was the effort of my students I would be disappointed. Because I research the justice sector, I'm aware of some creative and effective approaches that are happening. Our political leaders would do well to at least catch up. In coming columns I'll help them out and outline some of them.