Amid growing reports of ram raids and brazen robberies by teens too young to face prosecution, Opposition parties have accused the Labour Government of being “soft on crime”. Is it true? Data editor Chris Knox and political reporter Michael Neilson comb through the facts and figures to find out.
Ravinder Singh’s Pukekohe liquor store has been ram-raided more than 15 times and he has been stabbed and held up at gunpoint.
“The way they have hit the store, it’s not an easy task,” he told the Herald this week, as Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced more money for fog cannons to deter offenders. “We can slow them down but we can’t stop them.”
Reports of violent burglaries like these - some in broad daylight - smash-and-grab “ram raids” using stolen cars in the middle of the night, and mass brawls in the middle of crowded streets have been dominating headlines over the past year.
Communities are reeling from daily reports of increasingly brazen criminal activity, often involving disaffected teens and pre-teens who brag about their exploits on social media channels such as TikTok.
There is little argument that New Zealand is experiencing a spike in anti-social crime, mostly attributed to post-Covid complications, but the debate is growing over exactly what is causing it and whether it is just a blip or part of a longer-term trend.
In election year National and Act are pushing the theme hard, regularly accusing the Government of being “soft on crime”.
They argue that too often there are no consequences for offenders, citing statistics including a doubling of retail crime, a 26 per cent decrease in convictions and a 28 per cent drop in the prison population since Labour took charge.
“New Zealand gangs don’t have to form a party to block National’s tough-on-crime policies. They have the soft-on-crime Labour Party to do that for them,” National’s police spokesman Mark Mitchell said in December.
The Government has hit back, saying aside from a post-Covid spike - seen around the world, because of increased truancy rates and poverty levels - real crime rates for many offences are down or at least stable overall and recent increases in statistics are largely because of better reporting.
They in turn accuse the Opposition of attempting to appear “tough on crime”, and promoting a return to more punitive policies which they say are less effective than a prevention-first approach.
Labour’s Kieran McAnulty has called such debates “cynical political moves that are trying to dog-whistle to people to say and position one party against another as soft on crime and tough on crime”.
“No party in this House is soft on crime,” he told Parliament last year. “But what this side of the House recognises is that we can take a punitive approach, like we have over decades in this country, and nothing will change.”
Criminologists say this politicising of crime is unhelpful to the overall debate but understandable.
Victims advocate Ruth Money told the Herald whether crime was increasing or not, it was a general sense of injustice that provided a platform for the politicisation of crime.
“When the justice system response is not appropriate to the level of harm caused, you do get unrest and that then enables the loud voices to get a platform.”
She said it was particularly complicated currently with a spike in youth crime, many of whom were too young to be convicted.
This gave a sense of impunity as victims in some cases were unable to see any form of justice.
On the flip side, taking a more punitive approach was equally not the answer, as many young offenders came from difficult circumstances.
“While a sentence is important, it is really important to have rehabilitation of the victim as well as the person who has done the harm and offending.
“I don’t think either side is currently getting what they need.”
But what does “soft on crime” mean and how does this Government and others before it measure up?
Being “tough on crime” generally refers to more punitive approaches, such as more arrests, higher conviction rates and longer sentences of imprisonment, with an emphasis on “consequences” and “deterrence”.
Soft on crime implies the opposite: fewer arrests and convictions, fewer prisoners and an emphasis on second chances, restorative justice and rehabilitation.
What further complicates the debate is the myriad recording practices - from victimisations (crimes reported to police) to prosecutions and sentencing (Ministry of Justice) - all providing different ways to tell the story.
For example, while victimisations might be increasing, that could be because of better reporting practices.
While convictions might increase in any given year, that could actually indicate a backlog in the court system rather than an increase in crime.
And while police prosecutions might be decreasing, the prison population could also be increasing at the same time because of other factors.
Essentially, any one set of figures should always be seen as part of a wider picture.
The Herald has analysed this vast array of sources to see whether the political claims match the facts.
Here’s a guide to what the data tells us about crime in New Zealand.
Police charges have dropped under both Labour and National
Between 2017, when Labour first came into Government, and 2022, the total number of people charged and convicted for all offences dropped by about a quarter.
However, there was an even larger decrease under John Key’s National-led governments from 2008 until 2017, when the number of people charged fell by 40 per cent and convictions by 36 per cent.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was the Labour governments of the 2000s - led by Helen Clark - that oversaw a dramatic increase in police prosecutions and sowed the seeds of an exploding prison population.
Overall, the number of people charged with a crime in New Zealand now is about a third of what it was in 1981 — and there were 2 million fewer people in New Zealand then.
Criminologists spoken to by the Herald say it is hard to pinpoint exactly what drove the increase in charges from 2001 to 2009. Data shows the greatest proportion were public order offences (increased over 50 per cent from about 30,000 to just over 45,000), and acts intended to cause injury (over 60 per cent from about 24,000 to 39,000).
Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Dr Trevor Bradley said it was around this time Labour was talking “tough on crime” and so it was reasonable to assume that police responded to that political narrative.
In 1999, a referendum called for tougher sentencing. A few years later, Labour responded by tightening bail rules through the Sentencing and Parole Acts, which targeted violent offenders and removed automatic parole at two-thirds of a sentence, while also stretching out the time between parole hearings.
By 2004, the total prison population had grown by nearly 1000 and new prisons were needed.
Police also took a more proactive approach to organised crime and drugs, including a growing methamphetamine problem.
A 2006 paper by Dr Warren Young, deputy president of the New Zealand Law Commission, argued the judiciary responded to the prevailing political and public mood at the time.
“Many would say that judges have responded rightly, because that seemed to be what the public and the politicians wanted. However, what may arguably have started as rhetoric is having very real, and adverse, fiscal and moral consequences.
“New Zealand now finds itself on a treadmill of ever-increasing punitiveness. If we cannot find a way to get off that treadmill, we are at risk of perpetuating a situation that is, and should be regarded as, a national shame.”
Near the end of Labour’s time in Government, with a still rising prison population, it became apparent such an approach was costing the country a fortune and New Zealand was out of alignment with similar jurisdictions. Prime Minister Helen Clark talked about the urgent need to reduce the prison population to levels comparable to similar countries.
In 2008, non-custodial sentences (home detention and community detention) were introduced and their use has expanded.
Although National returned to the tough-on-crime narrative when it won power in 2008, the most significant change in this period was a police initiative from 2009 to 2014 to reduce the number of non-traffic prosecutions. It focused on minor offences, in response to a growing number of offenders clogging up the courts.
The programme used alternative resolutions such as pre-charge warnings - colloquially known as “tag and release” - and a focus on victims.
Non-traffic prosecutions ended up falling by 41 per cent by 2014. More than half the offences resolved with a pre-charge warning were disorder or breach of liquor ban offences.
While prosecutions fell, the prison population continued to rise, assisted by the Bail Amendment Act 2013 that reversed the burden of proof for accused offenders, introducing a presumption of detention and making them prove they should be released. As a result, the remand prison population increased dramatically.
Meanwhile, the decrease in prosecutions continued under Labour. Between 2009 and 2022, the number of people charged with a non-traffic related crime more than halved from 92,024 to 39,146, which is also a 47 per cent drop from the pre-2005 average of 74,000 people.
If we account for the 800,000 population increase since 2009, the police charge rate per 1000 people now (7.7) is just over a third of what it was in 2009 (20.9).
More crime or better reporting?
In 2014, police split the way they recorded and reported crime data into two parts: one focused on victims, or “victimisations”, and one on offenders.
A “victimisation” is a reported crime incident for which there is a direct victim, so illicit drug offences are not included.
The publicly released data shows a steady increase.
Monthly victimisations have climbed from 20,544 in July 2014 to 33,257 in January this year (the latest complete data), despite steep falls during the Covid lockdowns. They have risen by 29 per cent since Labour took office in January 2018.
While reports of crime appear to be increasing, this doesn’t tell the full story as overall crime has been historically underreported.
The Ministry of Justice’s New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey (NZCVS), which has been conducted four times in recent years, canvassed 6244 people in 2021 and again found only 25 per cent of all crime is reported to police.
This makes understanding levels of crime over time difficult as it is plausible that reporting of crime could increase without any real change in the underlying level of crime.
Results from the most recent survey found 29 per cent of adults were victims of crime in the past 12 months, about the same number as the survey’s first cycle in 2018.
The introduction of the 105 reporting line in May 2019 seems to have had an impact on reported crime.
The victimisation data overall for that year shows a steady increase after the introduction of 105 and before the Covid plunge.
Reports of non-family harm violent offences for example increased from 3648 in the month of April 2019 to 5318 in March 2020, right before the country went into lockdown.
Reporting of burglary and related crimes appears to have been reduced by Covid-19 and has now returned to pre-Covid levels. This has historically been seen as a well-reported crime due to insurance.
In 2022, almost 70,000 crimes were reported via Auror and new family harm offences appear to have resulted in the reporting of almost 20,000 additional crimes.
If we assume that all these crimes would not have been reported under previous reporting systems, then the increase in reported crime since 2017 is essentially the same as population growth.
What can also make crime appear more prevalent is the high profile of specific crimes themselves, such as ram raids. Police data shows ram raids peaked in August last year at 116 a month. The latest data for April shows it has since dropped to 68 (but up from a low of 44 in February).
At their peak, ram raids made up 0.36 per cent of total crime reported for that month. So while the crime dominates public discourse, any increase or decrease is not a good barometer of overall crime rates.
University of Canterbury sociologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert said this reflected some of the problems with law and order debate in New Zealand.
“They can often be formed on really emotive issues, and secondly, and perhaps most importantly, is that crime wins votes.”
Bradley said it was not often sexual assault and violence or corporate fraud and white-collar offending that were discussed by politicians.
“That’s not to downplay or minimise those retail crime and ram raids, because they can have a devastating effect on the victims.
“But we have much bigger problems in the crime and criminal justice system than that.”
Number of people imprisoned lowest since 1980s
Under the current Labour Government, the number of people sent to prison each year has dropped by 45 per cent to levels not seen since the 1980s.
It comes off the back of a Labour Party pledge to cut the prison population by 30 per cent over 15 years when it came into office after the 2017 election when there were 10,400 prisoners. By March 2018, it had climbed to 10,649.
The policy was largely continuing a bipartisan acceptance - previously touted by National’s Bill English - that prisons were a “moral and fiscal failure”, as Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis tried to stave off the need to build a new 1500-bed prison at Waikeria.
In March 2022, the prison population hit a low of 7669, representing a 28 per cent decrease. It has since risen to 8376 as of March this year.
The latest 10-year projection has it reaching just over 9400 by March 2032.
Opposition politicians have often used the decline in prison population as an example of Labour being “soft” on crime, contrasting it to rises in reports of specific crimes.
Whether or not the prison reduction does indicate a “no consequences” effect is difficult to answer.
Although the number of people convicted of a crime has fallen steadily since 2009, under the previous National government the percentage of people convicted who were sent to prison rose from 9.1 per cent to 13.6 per cent.
Under the current Labour government, this has fallen to 10.1 per cent. So while the imprisonment rate is lower under Labour, it is still higher than it was at the lowest point under the previous National government.
Ministry of Justice Data shows the decrease in people imprisoned under Labour has seen a corresponding increase in supervision and intensive supervision.
Looking further into the data, specific offence types account for over 80 per cent of the difference in the number of people sent to prison.
It also reveals some of the biggest drops in imprisonment rates were for lower-level crimes unlikely to make the headlines, such as breaches of bail or parole.
Youth crime follows a similar trend. In 2009, 4533 children and young people were charged in court. By 2017, this had dropped to 1881, with a further decrease to 1416 in 2022.
In 2022 a higher percentage of youth received discharges - 51.8 per cent - compared with 46.4 per cent in 2017 and 41.3 per cent in 2009.
Slightly fewer prisoners are reoffending. Four years ago, 62.1 per cent of prisoners were resentenced and 43.3 per cent ended up back in prison within two years of being released.
By 2022, 57 per cent of those released from prison were resentenced, and 36 per cent were reimprisoned within two years.
And statistics also show that prisoners are not getting out anytime sooner.
The rolling 12-month average of the proportion of sentences served as of January this year was 76 per cent - almost the same as 78 per cent in October 2017, but even higher than National’s years in government when it dropped as low as 72 per cent.
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said previously the Government had changed nothing about bail or parole eligibility - it had simply become more efficient.
More prisoners were being bailed because of specific programmes to ensure judges had all the relevant information in front of them, so they could consider cases in a timely manner.
Similar efforts were made for prisoners to be parole-ready, and for those leaving prison - either on parole or having finished their sentence – to be supported with a house, job, driver’s licence and bank account when they re-enter the community.
The Government last year repealed the three strikes law, which automatically hands maximum sentences to criminals who commit three serious crimes.
An evidence brief supplied by Corrections, Police and the Ministry of Justice found there was no evidence law had any deterrence effect, either domestically or overseas.
Gilbert said aside from that law, there did not appear to be any specific legislation Labour had passed that could have reduced sentences or inhibited police actions in any way.
He added that the length of a sentence was not regarded as important a deterrent as the certainty of getting caught.
“If you look at murder rates in states in the US that have got a death penalty, you might expect them to be lower than where it does not exist - but that is not the case.”
Can you trust the stats?
Gilbert said in his view there was nothing specifically Labour had done that could categorise it as any “softer” or “tougher” on crime than governments before it.
“The police are policing now no different than they did under the last National government.”
Gilbert said people needed to be cautious about claims based on crime statistics, as they could be influenced by social attitudes.
“If you look at the domestic violence statistics, they’ve been increasing and increasing significantly.
“Well, I don’t think that’s because the family is less safe now than it was in the 1980s. It’s simply because we take that crime far more seriously.
“But if you look at murder, definitionally murder doesn’t change. And when a murder occurs, it’s always reported.
“When you take into account population increases, the murder rate is actually down substantially.
“So while almost everyone will be thinking crime is up and we’re going to hell in a handbasket, in reality, it’s not like that at all.”
Money said she was less concerned about governments appearing “soft” on crime and more about what was right for victims and offenders.
“We’ve just got a revolving door so that when we do incarcerate someone, there’s no rehabilitation that’s effective, little support once they come out of prison.
“Then you’ve got a little-to-nothing response to victims.”
Money said whether crime was increasing or not, it should never be downplayed.
“If you ignore these people who are being harmed, you’re disempowering them. It is a healthy conversation to have until it becomes a political football.
“It doesn’t make great news for the current government but at the end of the day, it is what people are experiencing.
“And people are experiencing increased crime. People are under pressure, you know - cost of living, social pressures, housing, mental health are all contributing to crime.
“And you sound like an idiot if you deny that. But it’s how you deal with it that is important.”
Prosecutions and convictions: Ministry of Justice - People charged and convicted
Victimisations: New Zealand Police - Victimisations (Police Stations)
Proceedings: New Zealand Police - Unique Offenders (Police Stations)
Sentencing: Stats NZ - Adults sentenced in court
Ram raid: New Zealand Police - Retail crime and ram raids
Auror reporting: New Zealand Police - WPQ 52 (2023). Hon Paul Goldsmith to the Minister of Police
Family harm reporting: New Zealand Police - media query response
New Zealand population: Stats NZ - Estimated Resident Population and Population estimates in New Zealand