A bullsh*t-meter for politicians’ claims on crime

The Ministry of Justice has released its most robust research on crime and victimisation to date, but justice policy is rarely based on good evidence. Laura Walters asks whether that's likely to change.

Analysis: More than 8000 Kiwis have helped paint the clearest picture New Zealand’s ever seen of who are the victims of crime, how much crime is committed, and what types of crime are most prevalent.

The hope is the Ministry of Justice’s new Crime and Victim Survey will put a telescope on the issues, in order to identify specific patterns, causes, and shape sound, evidence-based policy.

The problem is justice policy is rarely shaped by evidence.

It more often relies on political rhetoric, and polling from those who are engaged and vote. These are also the people who are less likely to be affected by crime.

But Ministry of Justice chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite said this new research would help those conducting research, or developing policy in related government agencies, including Stats NZ, Ministry of Social Development, Te Puni Kōkiri, Police, Corrections, Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry for Women.

It would give them an insight into “crime in the shadows”, the incidents that go unreported, and aren’t part of the formal justice system.

And while the trends that appear in the results of the first annual survey aren’t surprising, they reconfirm what experts already know, adding precision around specific perceptions.

Kibblewhite said this level of data, which would improve each year as the sample grew, helped identify where to prioritise resources, and where to expand or rollout programmes.

The survey was funded for three years, at $3.7 million, with the hope it will continue annually.

The full survey results, released on Monday, found almost half (47 percent) of all crime was experienced by just 4 percent of adults - 2 percent experienced 40 percent. The results showed young people, Māori, and those living in deprivation, were most likely to be victims of crime.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of victims of interpersonal violence were victimised more than once within the year, and 15 percent were victimised five or more times.

While these statistics showed there was an issue with a small group experiencing a high concentration of crime, the survey also found the majority of crime goes unreported.

Almost a quarter (23 percent) of crime is reported – meaning 77 percent is not – and unsurprisingly the survey showed high rates of sexual and family violence suffered by women.

Chester Borrows, head of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, said the research would give a better idea of whether policy was actually making a difference.

And, going forward, it would allow people to “run the bullshit-meter” on political positions around crime and justice, he said, adding that it would make it easier to hold politicians to account.

“A hell of a lot of policy is made on the back of political polling.”

The problem was older people were more likely to vote, but were also less likely to be affected by crime.

Those with the greatest fear of crime and the highest security often lived in some of the safest neighbourhoods in the world, Borrows said, using Parnell and Remuera as examples.

“But they’re still shit scared behind their five locks and three burglar alarms and electric gate, and they’re not safe because they’ve got that stuff.”

Meanwhile, those in deprived neighbourhoods were more likely to be victims of crime, and those communities were the ones lacking government services.

It was hard for people in these neighbourhoods to stick to release terms, and there was a lack of victim support services.

“When you find something that’s really, totally stuffed, there’s never just one thing wrong with it.”

Borrows said the survey reaffirmed there was a small proportion of the population who were over-represented in crime statistics. This was where the resources and the policy needed to be targetted.

If the Government could address the issues plaguing the 4 percent of Kiwis who experienced 47 percent of crime, that would go a long way to fixing the issue, he said.

“The big challenge is going to be whether the politicians have got a stomach for dealing with the issues as they really are, by the evidence base and are they willing to take the political risk?”

Putting the bulk of the resource into that 4 percent would likely mean not putting a police station on every corner of wealthier, safer neighbourhoods. That would be a hard sell.

Fixing the criminal justice system

In order to address problems with the country’s criminal justice system, Government needed to take a “global view”, Borrows said.

The silo mentality was one of the biggest problems, he said, adding that those who ended up interacting with police, courts and Corrections had usually been previously let down by the health system, or social welfare, or other state services.

“When you find something that’s really, totally stuffed, there’s never just one thing wrong with it.”

This spoke to the lack of reporting of crime highlighted in the survey, especially in terms of sexual violence, where low reporting flows through to low rates of investigation and low rates of conviction.

Borrows said there were a range of factors in under-reporting of sexual violence, including the involvement of young people, a power inequity, and feelings of shame, self-blame or vulnerability.

Secretary of Justice and Ministry of Justice chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite (right) says the specific detail of the new research will help inform policy and resource allocation. It also added weight to what experts knew about victims of crime in New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Government, and Justice Minister Andrew Little, have pledged to overhaul the criminal justice system.

In recent years, the system has been subject to ad hoc changes, often in response to crimes that have caught the public's attention.

So far the Government has carried out hui across the country, as well as implementing changes within Corrections and providing further funding and support in the area of sexual violence and domestic violence. But widespread change is yet to come.

Earlier this year, the victim hui put the spotlight on issues faced by those who had suffered as a result of crime. This followed on from last year’s criminal justice summit.

“Victims of crime suffer not only harm, loss and trauma from the crimes against them. Many also suffer from a lack of justice and or revictimisation from within our inherited, Westminster, offender-centric, adversarial, criminal justice system,” Government’s chief victims advisor Kim McGregor said at the time.

“While not all victims are the same... from many victims’ perspectives, it seems there is very little about our current criminal justice system that is just, or is fair,” she said.

In April, Borrows and Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora presented Little with an initial report on what had come out the various summits, hui and other conversations in order to identify the issues. This report is expected to be publicly released next month.

The advisory group is expected to report back with recommendations by the end of August.

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