Justice Minister Simon Powe' />

Some of the reaction to Chief Justice Sian Elias's comments calling for a rethink on penal policy was not surprising.

Justice Minister Simon Power said the judge should butt out. He told the media her job was implementing Government policy - not commenting on it. Just why the Chief Justice should not use her expertise to express concerns about penal policy was unclear, aside from the fact that it's embarrassing for the Government.

Act MP and Sensible Sentencing Trust legal adviser David Garrett was horrified. He wants more prisons and more people in prison. He apparently wants us to follow the US example where incarceration rates are four times higher than comparable countries and where imprisonment has reached levels of lunacy such that in 2004 there were 360 people in California serving life sentences for shoplifting.

Prominent American criminologist John Irwin says prison is generally believed to have four "official" purposes - retribution for crime committed, deterrence, incapacitation of dangerous criminals and rehabilitation. However three other "unofficial" purposes have shaped America's prison policy. These are what he calls class control - the need to protect honest middle-class citizens from the dangerous criminal underclass, scapegoating - diverting attention away from more serious social problems, and using the threat of criminal activity for political gain.

Irwin may as well have been writing about New Zealand.

International experts agree imprisonment doesn't work at reducing crime. There seems to be a consensus that high conviction rates are more of a deterrent than longer sentences but this counts for little in our infantile political game whereby Labour and National have worked hard to outdo each other to be the harshest on criminals.

As it stands our current policy is making things worse. Our prisons are breeding grounds for violent crime. US prison psychiatrist James Gilligan says that the "most effective way to turn a non-violent person into a violent one is to send him to prison".

Sian Elias's comments challenging present policy were mild and it's pleasing general reaction has been sensible. There is widespread recognition that our penal policy is irrational and ineffective as well as a huge drain on expenditure. We already have the second highest imprisonment rate among comparable countries and our prison population is projected to rise 37 per cent from the current 8400 to almost 11,000 over the next eight years.

Public sensitivity on crime owes a great deal to the effective corporate-backed campaign of the Sensible Sentencing Trust which has used community concern about the plight of the victims of crime to shift the focus to the effects of crime rather than the causes of crime. It wants more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff rather than putting the spotlight on the broken fence at the top.

So what does this break in the fence look like? It turns out the answer is not related simply to the overall level of poverty within a country (as measured by its average income) but to its level of income inequality.

This analysis is detailed in a new book The Spirit Level by British authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They examine the prevalence of social problems within developed countries across the globe using data from official sources such as the World Bank and United Nations. The issues they study include the rate of violent crime, teenage pregnancy, poor health, obesity, mental health problems and illegal drug use.

When they plotted the prevalence of each of these problems against the average income of each country there was no relationship. Poorer countries were not likely to have greater social problems. However when they plot the incidence of the problem against the level of income inequality (measured as the relative difference between the income of the top 20 per cent compared to the bottom 20 per cent) the correlation is stunning. Every serious social problem is more prevalent in countries with high levels of income inequality, such as New Zealand, than in countries with less inequality.

In terms of understanding the causes of social problems this is as close to the holy grail as we have ever been.

It confirms what many New Zealanders would have suspected. The widening gap between rich and poor over the past 25 years has been the catalyst exacerbating the social problems which bedevil the country.

The book's authors draw on a wide range of sociological research to explain why these deepening social problems arise from growing income inequality. For anyone interested in the causes of crime the book should be essential reading.

For a generation now we have slavishly followed economic policies which have led to the deeply fractured country we have today. If we are serious about reducing crime we need to be serious about tackling changes in economic policy via income and tax changes to reduce the glaring disparities within the country.

This will not find favour among timid politicians or the corporate elite but it should be appreciated elsewhere. New Zealand is a broken society but at least we know the cause and the approach needed to find solutions.

* John Minto is the spokesman for Global Peace and Justice Auckland.