“Crime’s completely out of control”, National Party leader Christopher Luxon told Breakfast on Wednesday during his weekly morning media interviews.
“Kiwis don’t feel safe in their own homes or businesses or communities ... Now two months out from an election [the Government] decides it’s going to get tough on crime. It’s just not credible.”
His claim followed three youth crime policy announcements from Prime Minister Chris Hipkins as the Government looks to quell any vote-bleeding to the right over what’s becoming one of the major issues this election: law and order.
The Herald has previously delved into measuring crime rates and whether they are rising or falling. The answer is that it’s complicated. There is no uniformly complete data, and no way to fully account for all the variables that might contribute to crime rates, such as the Covid lockdowns, truancy levels or the cost-of-living crisis.
Some trends identified in the investigation include:
- A levelling-out in the number of people charged and convicted (excluding traffic-related offences) following a declining trend for more than a decade - though the number of people charged with theft and related offences trended up slightly in 2021.
- An increase in the number of reported crimes since 2019, including for theft (due in part to better reporting mechanisms), and violent crime (due in part to the introduction of new family harm offences). There’s also been a spike in reported ram raids since late 2020.
- A small uptick in recorded youth offending in 2021, following a steady decline for over a decade.
These statistics only show reported crime, however, and that represents only a quarter - or even less - of all crime.
Many believe the best indicator of the level of crime is the NZ Crime and Victims Survey, which is based on more than 5000 interviews with adults (aged 15 and above) and includes reported and unreported crimes.
The results are then standardised over the entire adult population, though it has its own limitations; it excludes certain crimes including murder, abduction, crime against those aged under 15, drug offences and retail crime.
The latest survey came out recently, after the Herald investigation, and paints a detailed picture of crime trends in 2022 including what offences are rising or falling, who is being victimised repeatedly, what demographic features make you more or less likely to be a victim, and who is still feeling safe - or is no longer feeling safe.
So is crime increasing?
According to the survey, almost seven out of 10 adults lived a crime-free life in 2022. This is slightly down from 71 per cent in 2021, and 70.4 per cent in 2018, though the actual numbers paint a starker picture: the 1.7 percentage point difference between 2021 and 2022 translates to 78,000 additional crime victims last year.
Almost one in five adults (18.9 per cent) experienced only one crime, while 8.4 per cent experienced two to three crimes. The groups more likely to be a victim of crime include the LGBT+ community (52 per cent were victims compared to 31 per cent for all adults), those separated from a partner or spouse (45 per cent), the disabled (40 per cent) and Māori (37 per cent).
Interestingly, adjusting for age and deprivation among Māori shows they are much closer to the average in terms of the likelihood of being a crime victim (32 per cent versus 31 per cent).
Those least likely to be a victim of crime are those aged 65 and above (19.3 per cent), couple-only households (24.8 per cent), those living in the South Island (23.7 per cent) and those whose household incomes were between $20,000 and $30,000 (23 per cent).
The latter is more indicative of pensioner incomes rather than those in financial stress, which is generally associated with a greater-than-average likelihood of being a crime victim, says Rebecca Parish, the Ministry of Justice’s general manager, sector insights strategy.
While the number of per-capita victims (prevalence rate) hasn’t changed significantly over the years, the number of per-capita crime incidents (incidence rate) jumped last year. There were 77 incidents per 100 adults/households, up from 61 in 2021 and 57 in 2020, when the whole country spent several weeks in Covid lockdown.
This corresponds to a 40 per cent increase in the total number of crime incidents (or 705,000 more incidents) in 2022, but only a 6.5 per cent increase in the number of victims.
The rise in the incidence rate is mainly due to two types of crime:
- The incidence rate for fraud and cybercrime offences jumped by 51 per cent in 2022 compared to 2021. This was accompanied by a similar increase (50 per cent) in the prevalence rate. The spike was mainly driven by fraud and deception offences, such as credit card fraud: one in 10 adults experienced such an offence in 2022, a 65 per cent increase from 2021.
- The incidence rate for interpersonal violence offences increased by 56 per cent in 2022, though the Ministry of Justice says there is some statistical uncertainty due to a lower sample size and response rate. This category includes sexual assault, other assault, harassment and threatening behaviour, robbery, and damage to personal or household property if the offender is known to the victim. The prevalence rate, however, fell from 7.3 per cent of adults in 2021 to 6.4 per cent last year.
This means there were about 26,000 fewer victims in 2022 but almost half a million more incidents of interpersonal violent crimes.
Majority of crimes fall on tiny minority
Perhaps the starkest detail in the survey is that only 3.5 per cent of adults - or 163,000 people - suffered 56 per cent of all offences in 2022. This was an increase on the previous year, when the “highly victimised” (victims of at least four crime incidents) suffered 47 per cent of all offences.
This group grew by only 25,000 people in 2022 but experienced half a million more crime incidents than in 2021. Many of the “highly victimised” are among the 103,000 repeat victims of interpersonal violence; they make up 2 per cent of all adults but suffered 87 per cent of interpersonal violence offences.
The 45,000 repeat victims of offences by family members make up 60 per cent of all such victims, up from 40 per cent in 2021. “Further research is needed to explain this increase,” the survey’s report says.
Women are three times more likely to suffer an offence from a family member than men, while Māori (5.2 per cent), especially Māori women (6.9 per cent), were far more likely to experience such an offence than the average adult (1.8 per cent).
The profile of those most likely to be victims of interpersonal violence is similar to that for all crime, but far more acute: those in the LGBT+ community are 2.8 times more likely to be a victim, those separated from a partner or spouse 2.6 times more likely, and those aged 15 to 29 almost twice as likely.
Those least likely to be among the 2 per cent of adults who experienced a sexual assault last year were men, those aged at least 40, Asian people, those who were married or widowed, homeowners and those who earned at least $60,000 a year.
There was also a steady increase in the proportion of adults who experienced sexual violence in their lifetime - 27 per cent in 2022, compared with 25.9 per cent in 2021 and 23.3 per cent in 2018.
Again, though the percentage point differences are tiny, this means there are tens of thousands of additional sexual violence victims - and 1.1 million victims in all - compared to 2021. The trend is similar for those who had suffered non-consensual sexual touches (more than one in four adults) or forced intercourse (almost one in six).
Only about a quarter of all crime was reported to police according to the surveys in previous years, but this dropped even further to 18.5 per cent in 2022. Much of this was due to the fall in reporting by the “highly victimised”, whose rate of reporting fell from 25 per cent in 2022 to only 16 per cent in 2022.
The most common reason (45 per cent) for not reporting was the belief that the incident was too trivial, while 39 per cent thought the police either couldn’t do anything (24 per cent) or wouldn’t be interested (15 per cent).
Tens of thousands no longer feel ‘completely safe’
Just over a quarter - 27 per cent - of adults said they felt “completely safe” in 2022, down from 29 per cent in 2021. This translates to some 80,000 fewer adults compared to 2021.
The proportion of those who felt the least safe remained the same: 11 per cent.
The survey also found that people are made victims mostly in their homes (46 per cent of all incidents), followed by online or on their phones (26 per cent). The least likely crime venue is a community area (3 per cent).
So is crime out of control? That depends on how you define “out of control”.
The percentage change in the prevalence rate is very small, even negligible, but it still translates to 78,000 extra victims of crime in 2022 than in 2021, as well as a similar number who no longer feel “completely safe”. The case is stronger if you are looking at the number of crime incidents, which ballooned by 705,000 in 2022.
The strongest case for “out of control” crime is for fraud and cybercrime offences, where there was a spike in 2022 not only in the number of crimes but also the number of victims. The Ministry of Justice notes that there have also been post-Covid increases in such crimes in England and Wales.
There was also a spike in interpersonal violence offences, but far more additional offences than victims. Most of the victims were repeat victims, especially when it comes to offences by a family member.
Hence one of the best ways to tackle crime appears to be preventing crime that takes place within the family, or at home.
Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has done several stints in the press gallery and is a former deputy political editor.