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Get It Straight: Repeal Section 59 And Cut Crime

Anne Else's Letter from Elsewhere

Get It Straight: Repeal Section 59 And Help To Cut Crime

Wilful stupidity is really hard to deal with, but I’m going to try. The Sensible Sentencing Trust has just managed to pull off a difficult feat. In a strong field of stupid statements, its latest one on Sue Bradford’s Bill stands out for its utter idiocy.

In a nutshell, the Trust is telling Ministers and the public “Ban-smacking today / Build Prisons tomorrow”. In other words, repealing section 59 and removing the “reasonable force” defence for assaulting children will produce more criminals.

This claim is not just wrong, it is the complete opposite of the facts. Maltreating children in general, and assaulting them in particular, is very strongly linked with later criminal behaviour. Go into any prison and ask how many of the inmates were not frequently hit as children. You won’t get many hands up.

But don’t take my word for it – look at the research. Please. The clearest recent evidence comes from an April 2006 study called “Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?”* It looked at all the available US evidence on whether maltreatment of children was linked with later committing of crimes. The authors say that to their knowledge, “this is the first study of the effect of child abuse on future criminality in the economics literature”. (Given the high cost of crime, that’s odd, isn’t it.)

Overall, they found that child maltreatment roughly doubles the probability that an individual will engage in many types of crime. Having a parent who ever struck, hit or kicked them clearly increases the probability that an individual will undertake criminal activity, although as you would expect, the effect tends to be greater if the parent struck them frequently.

In other words, it is precisely the kind of physical abuse of children which Sue Bradford’s Bill is designed to make indefensible that is most strongly linked with later criminal behaviour. The only kind of maltreatment that is more strongly linked with committing crimes later is childhood sexual abuse. Oh, and poverty makes it all worse. If you’re poor and hit often as a child, you have a very high chance of ending up in prison.

Assaulting children is an activity in which New Zealand can fairly be called world-beating. Repealing section 59 will not directly stop this. What it will do is prevent the assaulting parents who get caught from getting off by claiming that they were simply using “reasonable force”. Over time, it will help to change the way we treat our children – and so go a long way towards cutting crime and halting the growth in the prison roster.

* Janet Currie [Columbia University, UCLA and NBER Department of Economics] and Erdal Tekin [Georgia State University and NBER Department of Economics], “Does Child Abuse Cause Crime?” April 2006, http://aysps.gsu.edu/publications/2006/downloads/CurrieTekin_ChildAbuse.pdf

(accessed 26/3/07)

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- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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