Remember when people were rushing to fill soft-drink bottles with water and leave them on their lawn to stop dogs pooing on their grass? It doesn't seem that long ago.
It was a tremendous fad and although hundreds of thousands of people believed it, it wasn't true. There are just as many dogs out there pooing today and nobody is rushing to put out the plastic bottle of water on their lawn.
Sometimes public opinion has no resemblance to the truth, in spite of there being no smoke without fire, sometimes the public just gets the wrong end of the stick. But the politician can never say that. The customer is always right and so if your currency is public sentiment, then for the politician the public can never be wrong. Right?
We have seen this phenomenon play out in the media this week with the debates around Three Strikes Legislation and building the Mega-Prison in Waikeria.
The Three Strikes legislation came out of a political deal between the National Party and the Act Party after the 2008 Election. Nobody in National had been calling for Three Strikes legislation prior to the election, but needed a confidence and supply agreement with Act to form a government.
If it didn't have Act it couldn't form a government that would deliver on promises because although it also had the support of the Maori Party and United Future, it could not rely on their support over its more conservative legislative agenda. The demand for Three Strikes came from political expediency and not from a call from the justice sector. In fact the opposite is true, and the justice sector unanimously objected.
The building of a big 3000-bed prison is promoted by those who turn a deaf ear to the facts and switch on to the rhetoric of political competitors. Crime is trending down significantly since 1990 mainly for social and commercial reasons. More people are employed, youth are better educated, consumers are better paid, attractive items are cheaper, homes are more secure, vehicles are harder to steal, communities are better lit, CCTV cameras keep commercial districts better observed.
Crime is also down because of "smart on crime" strategies over the last few years. Better rehabilitation offered in the community. A wider use of restorative Justice in response to crime, Collecting DNA off all offenders, better support of victims, greater employment training in prisons, more creative sentencing in the Youth Courts and preventative strategies like Domestic Violence Courts, Drug and Alcohol Courts, Rangatahi Courts and others. The greater use of Police discretion towards charging offenders for lower level crimes along with other tactics have all played a role in driving crime rates down thirty per cent.
But the public believe overwhelmingly, in spite of all the evidence, that crime is on the rise, the world is getting worse and they are at greater risk than ever.
In several states in the USA Three Strikes legislation is being scrapped. These states have seen a quarter of prison numbers dropped as have crime figures. Community based sentences have a much better chance of success in people not coming back to court than those operated behind prison wire.
Funnily enough the politicians claiming the greatest success in driving crime rates down with 'smart on crime' strategies now want to negate all their hard work by spouting,
'tough on crime' rhetoric which is proven not to work.
Successful justice policy is not simple, nor is it popular. Simplistic slogans don't work, no matter how good the politics may be. Putting a plastic bottle of water in the middle of your lawn will show you have done something about the problem, but won't stop the neighbours' pets leaving their calling card on your lawn.