Thursday, November 09, 2006

More thoughts on justice and punishment...

Been a few blogs around that have indirectly (some directly) drawn attention to this article written by Theodore Dalrymple (otherwise known as Dr Anthony Daniels).

Now it is very difficult for me to argue with much of what he says. Once again it is not the "facts" that are "wrong" so much as the additional narrative that is missing.

The first and most important missing fact is that his two week stay in this country was as guest of the "Sensible Sentencing Trust".

Take the two examples that he gives as "instances" of how the NZ justice system "fails", and the sequel to the second;
The first concerned a man with 102 convictions, many for violence including rape. (I should point out that 102 convictions means many more offences, since the conviction rate is never 100 per cent of the offending rate, and is sometimes only 5 or 10 per cent of it.)

This man nevertheless became eligible for parole.


The second case was of a man with many previous convictions, some for violence, who abducted and murdered a young woman aged 24. He was imprisoned and applied for bail. Three times he was turned down, but a fourth judge granted him bail. He was sent to live at a certain address, where he befriended his neighbours, who did not know that he was accused of murder. Eight months later, while babysitting their children, he killed one of them.


Perhaps the most extraordinary twist of this terrible tale is that the parents of the murdered child then had another baby, which the social services then removed from them on the grounds that they had previously entrusted a child to the care of a murderer and were therefore irresponsible parents. The state blames its citizens for the mistakes - if that is what they are - that it makes.

You can find the gory details of two more instances if you wish on the SST page...

Those four have occurred over a period of some 15 years.

I could add another, of a 15 y-o who was convicted of drug related crimes including use of methamphetamine, who was released to the care of his family and given work experience in a local office. He went back to the office one evening, killed two and seriously injured a third with a baseball bat and made off with the day's takings. He is now the youngest person in this country to have been sentenced to life imprisonment (which given NZ sentencing law means he will be eligible for parole when he is about 30).

It would be a perfect world if we could stop all of these killings and maimings. It would be a perfect world if we did not have road traffic deaths as well.

But commentators like Dalrymple, and organisations like SST as well come to the point, really do piss me off more than just a little.

Yes, I have a problem with them, and it is very simple.

Like so many people, they take a single instance or a very small number of instances and make sweeping generalisations covering the whole population. I can not argue against the figures, they pretty much speak for themselves.

What is missing -

* A meaningful and supportable discussion of the causes of increased crime levels.

* A meaningful and supportable discussion of possible and effective measures that would reduce crime.

* A meaningful and supportable discussion of effective crime prevention.

To take the first point - why did serious crime levels start increasing so rapidly in the early 1980's? Were the causes economic? Were they connected to other social or cultural changes? Were they the result of poor education of parents 20 years earlier? There is no examination of that question by SST. There is a good chance that every one of those questions contributed, but not one more than others.

As an instance in the second case. Parliament last night rejected legislation to increase the minimum age for purchasing liquor from 18 back to 20 (it was reduced some 6 years back). I am pleased that it was rejected. Most of the 18 and older people I know are comparatively responsible. There are a small minority who are not. That is the group that society has to minimise. I can suspect that a goodly number of that minority abuse alchohol, or supply it to under-age siblings, because that is what they were given or allowed to do by their parents. Well documented instances exist - the mother grieving for her son killed in a car accident; she had given him a 40oz bottle of vodka to take to a party and he was driving.

This is very much a social problem. For Dalrymple (as just one instance) to characterise it in this fashion in a somewhat differently edited version of the same op-ed as it appeared in the Herald -
For several hours a large number of these young men careered through the streets (of Napier) in their cars with sawn-off exhausts, completely unoposed - as far as I could tell - by representatives of the law.


And I don't suppose that I have to elaborate on the likely future of a society that fears its own children, or at least enough of them to retreat indoors when they come out to play.

Children have parents.

A very good number of those "children" - the boy racers - are in fact driving vehicles either owned by or purchased by their parents.

A very good number of those "children" are in fact in their 20's. A few could themselves BE parents.

That excuses nothing. This is a problem that society needs deal with. It is the kid's "fault"? Or is it the parent's?

What pisses me is that a person (not the term I would like to use) like Daniels can come to a country like NZ as a guest of a group with a political agenda and can then spout off with great authority about what is wrong.


How about some sensible, workable, suggestions on how it can be stopped?


Dave Justus said...

"How about some sensible, workable, suggestions on how it can be stopped?"

Isn't one sensible, workable solution locking violent criminals up longer and being less eager to grant them bail or parole?

Obviously it wouldn't solve everything, but it seems like it could be a start.

The probligo said...

On a per head population basis, NZ has the second highest prison population in the world - after the US.

That is the consequence of law changes made progressively since the mid '90s; the time that the SST has been operating.

As an aside, the power for longer sentences has always been there, particularly for those convicted of multiple crimes. If a guy commits 17 burglaries, he might receive what is effectively 12 months imprisonment, say 2 years less parole, because the Court makes the sentences concurrent. There are 17 crimes, 17 sentences ranging from 2 years to 15 months... how about he serves them cumulatively instead?

But that is not at all the point I am trying to make. There was a prograame on tv last night - I didn't watch it as there were more important things to be done. The promo sounded rather like the hoe touted by the NRL of "guns don't kill people...".

"Kids aren't born bad, we let them go that way."

I have many times mourned the fact that there is nothing in NZ law that requires parents to take responsibility for the education and up-bringing of the children.

There is nothing, anywhere in the education system, that could be even a hint of teaching parenting skills - such as cooking, budgetting, self-discipline or work ethic; and that is way before you get anywhere near the likes of relationahip and sex education.

I am trying to pick up on preventive rather than punitive solutions.

Dave Justus said...

Seems like a catch-22. You make it clear that you think that parents, not society, needs to be responsible for instilling basic values in their children, but you want the education system to instill basic values in parents. If the later worked, you wouldn't require the parents to do so in the first place.

NZ does not have the second largest prisoner per capita, it is #55. It might be the second largest in the 'western' world.

Certainly I think an arguement can be made against too much prison, I happen to think that we have erred to far in that direction in the U.S. Particularly, I think our war on drugs and the imprisonment of non-violent drug felons is self defeating. However, strong penalties for violent crimes makes sense. Probably the worse possible is too much imprisonment of non-violent criminals and too little imprisonment of violent criminals taken in tandem.

On interesting expiriment in combating crime was what Mayor Rudi Giuliani did in New York City. Basically it involved a crackdown on minor crimes, like vandalism and such, and resulted in a decrease in more serious crimes. The idea, catch them when they are commiting small crimes and they won't go on to commit larger ones. The statistics seem to show that it worked well. (For most of the 'small' crimes I don't think jail time was involved, fines and the like were sufficient.)

The probligo said...

I will confess that I despair of any "justice" system that will work in this world.

Re the point on "parental education".

When I was at school, yr 5 or 6 thereabouts (man, don't that make me sound OLD!!!) I spent an afternoon a fortnight learning woodworking... how to cut with a saw, how to use a hammer, how to plan and measure materials, how to use a plane... That part of the school curriculum by the time my son reached the same age had become compulsory metalwork and cooking for both boys and girls. My daughter four years after that did about three sessions at sewing and not much more. The courses were canned primarily because of lack of teachers and considerable disagreement on who should be taught what.

BTW while I was learning woodwork, the girls were doing "homecraft". Believe it or not, that included such highly improper and denigrating tasks as how to wash and fold nappies (cloth, reuseable, diapers), how to bathe a baby - a real LIVE baby - in addition to sewing, diet planning, good food, cooking, and "home economics". BTW too, "Home Studies" were spread through those initial 2 years, and could then be taken as final qualification subjects after 3 years secondary school.

It was decided (by whom I can not recall) that girls should be allowed to do metalwork, technical drawing, carpentry, mechanics etc if they wished. No real argument with that either. But it was the death knell of "Home Economics".

Interestingly, most of the girls in country families (I can think of a couple with some fondness in fact) would have learned many of those home skills from their mothers, as well as at school. The numbers though would be small to insignificant. In my wife's case, being a city girl, learning typing and bookkeeping was far more important.

I confess too that my own experience, being faced with a new member of my family and having to suddenly "know" how to parent at the age of 25, was a very considerable shock. It was a learning experience that we did our best to pass on to our kids. Our son seems to have learned well, as he is making a very good job of being father to our first grandchild.

I think, given what I see around me, that there is something quite unique in what I have been and am... I work with a guy whose idea of being a father to his three adult boys is to do as much as he can for them. Very generous; he spends a h3JJ of a lot of time doing it. But, really, to what good for his boys? Are they really learning anything more than "Get dad to do it for us"?

But back to the "Home Economics" thing again. I think, given what I have had to learn, that the old "Home Economics" should not only be universal - every kid should be able to cook, to plan a meal, to make and keep a budget, to bath a baby, to change its nappies, to make a table, to fix a car...

Oh dream on, ol' probligo, dream on...

If you go back to the SST web page again, they have some time-value graphs there of violent crime. Given that there is probable validity in the general shape of the data, it raises the question "What the hell happened to this society in the early 1980's?"

There are a number of things that I can think of -

* - It was immediately after the second oil shock.
* - It was 16 years after I left school, 12 years after I got married.
* - It was 2 years before the end of the Muldoon right wing government - the one that left us temporarily insolvent as a nation.
* - It was at a time of considerable inflation - over 15%p.a. - caused in very large part by the policies of the government. That led to an increasing level of (comparative) poverty, especially amongst the low-skilled and unemployed. Unemployment reached about 12% excluding those on make-work schemes. Total unemployment was probably closer to 25% nationally.
* - It was 15 to 20 years after the "swinging sixties".

What was the cause of that increase in serious crime? No one will put their finger to it. It could be anything I have listed; a huge range of other factors; combinations of factors.

I don't know. I suspect no one really does.

The probligo said...

From Bob (of LibertyBob fame) comes this comment -

"Good posting!

You’re right about needing to focus on keeping kids from becoming criminals. I don’t know about New Zealand , but we have some serious problems here. Many kids tell their parents that the parent can do nothing to punish them or the kid will call the Department of Human Services. Historically, DHS has sided with the protection of the child over the parents’ rights. If the complaints this would be legitimate, but there have been too many abuses of the system.

Worse yet, the schools cannot engage in negative reinforcement for fear of being sued. The schools are also under pressure not to expel children because of two reasons. First, there is no one at home to watch the expelled kid. Second, it may cause “emotional harm” to the child. This comes from the belief that “trauma” is inherently bad.

The trauma of touching something hot teaches one not to touch hot things (and to check for ‘hot’ before touching.) The trauma of ramming one’s toe into a chair leg teaches one to turn on the light before walking around. The trauma of seeing two bums in an alley fight for a bottle could be the trauma that makes the kid decide not to become a boozer. This was the point of the old “Scared Straight” programs where children visited prisons to meet criminals. Trauma is nature’s way of teaching us something very important very quickly. It kept our ancestors from getting eaten. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of trauma.

Kids also need a structured series of expectations. We used to have rituals at different ages and the kids knew what they had to do to qualify for the next level. Now we say you are a child until the age of eighteen and then, magically, you are an adult. There is no training to be an adult; the change is based on age rather than meeting requirements. Can you imagine the motivation it would be if twenty-year-old people had to explain why they have not passed their adult exams?

Anyway, I’ve ranted enough about your ranting."

Thanks Bob. Good to hear from you as usual...