The architects of measures intended to reduce violent crime will doubtless feel that the national crime statistics for 2009 released this week add power to their arguments.

They will seek to persuade us that we're drowning in a tide of thuggery and murder and only the most draconian increases in the severity of sentencing will save us from the abyss towards which we are hurtling.

So it's worth keeping in mind what conclusion the police draw from the numbers: that legislative changes during 2009 have generally had negligible impact on total recorded crime.

The numbers themselves are scarcely comforting: they show that recorded offences are up by 4.6 per cent, though it's worth noting that a recorded offence is defined as one in which an offender is identified by police and dealt with. Thus the figures measure police effectiveness and public co-operation, as well as actual numbers of offence being committed.

But such analysis is inconvenient when politicians seek to make capital. Labour's law and order spokesman Clayton Cosgrove predictably called the increases "incredibly embarrassing for John Key, and frightening for Kiwis who put their faith in him".

Collins, for her part, trumpeted that, "in areas where the Government has concentrated resources and police are trialling new approaches to policing, crime statistics are starting to show improvement".

What's depressing about both perspectives is that they show no willingness to try and account for why the numbers are up. A 25 per cent jump in the murder rate from 2008 to 2009 may make it harder for those of a nervous disposition to sleep easy at night, but the numbers - 52 and 65 - that yield the comparison scarcely amount to civil strife in which the streets run with blood. A more telling figure is the increase in overall crime in different areas: Auckland City and Waitemata (the west and north) show increases of 1.2 per cent and 1.6 per cent respectively. The number is a shade under 7 per cent in the Counties Manukau district where the communities most hammered by the recession are to be found.

In short, the nation is not being engulfed in a crime wave. To use a word that politicians are always careful to avoid, poor people are committing more crimes - and their victims are disproportionately poor as well.

This is particularly relevant to the discussion of National's controversial "three strikes" law, which is working its way through the committee process on its way back to the House.

The Human Rights Commission says that the proposed law breaches the Bill of Rights Act and international human rights conventions that we have signed up to, as well as undermining judicial independence and discretion.

Meanwhile a loud chorus of distinguished legal opinion suggests it will lead to perverse and unjust sentencing. But the Government is intent on getting it passed.

No one in the Beehive seems keen to explain why, if the threat of punishment does not deter an offender, the threat of a putative worse punishment for a future third crime would.

Still less does anyone want to wonder whether crime might be an index of social deprivation and despair, not of dark-hearted evil that will be eradicated only by longer and longer terms of imprisonment.

Like it or not, we need to address the social disadvantage that spawns crime rather than just punishing it more severely. If the "three strikes" law is the answer, it is more than just possible that we're asking the wrong question.