A major Herald analysis of police and justice data has revealed some surprising facts about crime in Aotearoa over the past few decades. In part two of our series, data editor Chris Knox and political reporter Michael Neilson take a look at the history of “soft on crime” rhetoric and how some recent claims stack up under closer inspection.
“We have been too soft for too long with the perpetrators of violence.”
The preceding quote could have been uttered yesterday in the House of Parliament by any Opposition MP, perhaps referencing the recent spike in violent ram raid incidents.
In fact, it came in a speech during a Parliamentary debate in 1988 by then-National police spokesman John Banks, with reference to a moral panic of the age: attacks on the elderly.
Victoria University of Wellington criminologist Dr Trevor Bradley said the 1987 and 1990 elections were the first in New Zealand to really make crime a political issue, filtering into the country from Thatcherite England.
A search through interviews, press releases and Parliamentary records ever since shows regular “soft on crime” and “tough on crime” accusations lobbed back and forth between the major political parties.
These terms are proving particularly popular this term, with Hansard recording 79 “soft on crime” references between the 2020 election and March this year - up from 50 in the previous term and just six in the term before that, when Labour was in Opposition.“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.
In 2010, then-backbench MP and now Prime Minister Chris Hipkins lamented the difficulty of politicians to adequately deal with the “underlying social causes of criminal offending”.
“Yes, there are votes in being seen to be hard on criminals. There are very few votes, unfortunately, in dealing with the root causes of crime and criminal offending, because they are not easy and they do not fit on a bumper sticker.”
Regardless, each of the main political parties over the years has been guilty of trying to win “law and order auctions”, each accusing the other of being “soft” and “tough” at various points in time.
And in election year National and Act are pushing the theme hard, regularly accusing the Government of being “soft on crime”.
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.
Academic experts, however, say those phrases don’t have any evidence behind them and are often simply used by politicians to suit their narrative.
“Often an empty slogan, pandering to the emotional responses of the electorate,” said Bradley.
“And that’s not to downplay or minimise offences, 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.”
Sociologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert said the downside of such rhetoric was that longer-term thinking tended to get sidelined.
“It does resonate with the public, and hence why they continue to be used.
“You can say, ‘Let’s crackdown on crime’. Whereas if you’re talking about more sophisticated ways, it’s harder, so politicians tend to steer towards what’s easier.”
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.
A major Herald analysis of police and Ministry of Justice data over the past few decades has revealed that the statistics often don’t match up with the rhetoric.
With crime becoming an increasingly hot political topic the Herald has looked at some recent political claims that become a little more complicated when looking at all of the data.
‘Youth offending down’ says Labour, but police also charging less
Labour has claimed youth offending is down 60 per cent over the past decade.
The data used to make that claim is from the Ministry of Justice, looking at the total number of children and young people charged in court.
While it does indeed show a significant drop over the past decade, this is also a measure of how often police choose to prosecute.
So rather than show that youth offending has decreased, it shows how often police are opting to prosecute.
The data also shows the greatest decrease in youth offences recorded appears to have occurred under the previous National governments.
Between 2009 and 2017, the total number of children and young people charged in court dropped from 4533 to 1881 - a 59 per cent drop.
Under Labour, the number has fallen by just 25 per cent.
More crime but less jail time under Labour?
In March, National’s justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith claimed an increase of over 5000 offences in 2022 and youth convictions increasing by 14 per cent were evidence of a crime spike.
He also pointed to the increase in victimisations since 2017 and the drop in imprisonment sentences.
A closer look at the data shows while the number of offences had increased by over 5000 between 2021 and 2022, it was a minor increase in an overall declining trend going right back to a peak in 2009.
Since then, the number of people charged each year with a non-traffic-related crime more than halved from 92,024 to 39,146.
The number of people charged for traffic and vehicle-related offences fell by 43 per cent.
Under Labour, total offences had fallen by over 22 per cent between 2017 and 2021.
Another look at the data indicates the small increase between 2021 and 2022 could have been making up for a backlog in the court system due to Covid-19 lockdowns of 2021.
Data shows the largest increases in offences were recorded in Waitematā, Auckland, South Auckland and Waikato - all of which were in lockdown during the latter months of 2021. Combined these saw increases of 10,113 offences.
Their total figures for 2022 were still below the totals for 2020.
Retail crime skyrocketing?
According to police data, monthly reported retail crime has increased by nearly 60 per cent since 2017.
In October 2017, there were just under 4000 reports of retail crime. This peaked at 10,109 incidents in October 2022.
“Unless the Government gets serious about fighting crime and cracking down on this offending, criminals will continue to feel like they can operate with impunity, putting Kiwi lives and businesses at risk,” National Party police spokesman Mark Mitchell said this year.
A deeper look into the data shows a large increase in reporting of retail crime through the software Auror.
This app-based programme was introduced in 2015 to make it easier for retail chain stores, supermarkets and petrol stations to report shoplifting and theft to police, particularly for goods less than $500 in value.
Police say the majority of such crimes were previously not reported. This followed a 2017 Retail NZ survey that found close to 70 per cent of retail crime was not being reported.
In 2017, 15 per cent of retail crime was reported through Auror. This had increased to 65 per cent by 2022.
A breakdown of the data shows in October 2017, there were 3916 reports of retail crime - including 3316 directly to police and 610 through Auror.
The latest available data to January this year shows reports through Auror have increased over tenfold to 6560, while reports through police have actually decreased to 3108.
Police have previously said the increase in reports of retail crime is largely due to better reporting and recording methods.
It is difficult to conclude if there has or hasn’t been an increase in theft based on the figures from police and the changes in reporting modes. However, if there has been an increase in theft it is not as dramatic as a casual glance at the figures might suggest.
Other sources though do support a general increase in retail offending. A survey by Foodstuffs of its 320 supermarkets across the North Island found serious incidents such as burglary, assault, robbery, and other aggressive, violent, and threatening behaviour had gone up 36 per cent in a year.
The impact of Auror can also be seen in the overall increase in crime reported to police - victimisations.
If all the Auror reports are excluded, then the 33 per cent increase in reported crime between 2017 and 2022 becomes a 7.8 per cent increase.
Better reporting and recording or more crime?
National and Act point to a 30 per cent rise in reported crime under Labour as evidence the Government’s “soft” approach is not effective.
Labour meanwhile, while recently accepting an increase in violent crime, has said most of the increase is due to better reporting and new offences being introduced to capture more crime. So who is right?
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 January 2018, soon after Labour first took office.
National and Act have used these increasing reports of crime to show the impact of what they say are Labour’s “soft on crime” policies.
Act Party leader David Seymour said in May: “According to the Police’s own numbers, monthly ‘victimisations’ – that is crime to you and me – are up by 60 per cent each month since 2019. That is more than six and a half thousand more innocent people – families – being the targets of robberies, gangs and violence each month.”
But hows does that hold up under the data microscope?
While reports of crime appear to be increasing, this doesn’t tell the full story as overall crime has been historically underreported.
The New Zealand Crime and Victims survey indicates that only 25 per cent of crimes are reported to the 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.
There have also been recent two changes to reporting crime that could have impacted the reporting of theft: the introduction of the police 105 line and ability to report theft via the Auror retail crime platform, as referenced above.
There have also been new offences introduced, which means previously unreported crime could now be recorded, and some offences have been recategorised.
To see what’s driving the increase, let’s consider the three largest categories of crime separately. Theft, violence, and burglary made up 96.8 per cent of reported crime in December 2022.
From July 2014 until the end of 2018 monthly reports of theft averaged 11,400. In January 2023, 19,197 instances of theft were reported — a 68 per cent increase on the pre-2019 level.
But has theft increased or has reported theft increased?
Removing reports through Auror, that 68 per cent rise actually becomes a 16 per cent decrease.
Police data also appears to show an increase in reporting following the 105 line starting up in May 2019.
That pre-2019 average of 11,400 increases by 35 per cent through to January 2020, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown.
So it is difficult to conclude if there has or hasn’t been an increase in theft based on the figures and the changes in reporting. However, if there has been an increase in theft it is not as dramatic as a casual glance at the figures might suggest.
Looking at crime reports overall, if all the Auror reports are excluded, then the 33 per cent increase in reported crime between 2017 and 2022 becomes a 7.8 per cent increase.
Violence up 46 per cent - Labour says better reporting, new offences
Reports of violent crime, or acts intended to cause injury, have increased 46 per cent in the year to March 2023 compared to the year to March 2017.
Both the police and Police Minister Ginny Andersen have attributed most of this increase to better reporting and the introduction, and use, of two new offences in the December 2018 changes to the Family Violence Act: assault on a person in a family relationship and impedes breathing (strangulation/suffocation)’.
Does the data support this?
Like with theft, the data shows a steady increase after the introduction of 105 and before the Covid plunge.
Reports of violent offences for example increased from 3649 in the month of April 2019 to 5318 in March 2020, right before the country went into lockdown.
The introduction of these new offences does also correlate with an increase in reported family harm and there has been a much smaller increase in non-family harm assaults.
Since March 2017, there has been a 46 per cent increase in all acts intended to cause injury.
Data shows the bulk of that increase has indeed been family-harm-related offences, increasing from 33,471 in the year to March 2017 to 50,640 in the year to March 2023 - an increase greater than 50 per cent.
Other assaults meanwhile have increased from 18,440 to 25,344 over the same period - an increase of just over 37 per cent.
So while it does appear better reporting and new offences have contributed the increase in reports of violent crimes, there has also been an increase in violent crime when removing those variables.
Looking at the data overall 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.
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.
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.