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Jim Rose on Gangs – Analysis without Context

Jim Rose on Gangs – Analysis without Context

The opinion piece by economist Jim Rose, ‘Extra prisoners are nearly all gang members - that's hardly a crisis’ (Dominion Post, 29th May) demonstrates what happens when an economist relies on statistical analysis without an understanding of context.

First, Rose notes that the number of prisoners without any gang affiliations have not increased at all. What he needs to understand, is that the police and Corrections have extended the definition of ‘gang affiliated’ offenders. The 4,000 gang members on the Police database include any offender charged together with a New Zealand adult (meaning ‘patched’) gang member for the same offence; anyone with a family tie to an adult gang member, and anyone with an identified connection to an adult gang member.

The Police -led Gang Intelligence Centre may well come under closer scrutiny before long. Amnesty International recently investigated the UK Metropolitan Gang Matrix , a similar database, and found that while 90 percent of those ‘red flagged’ on the matrix were black, latino, or coloured, 40% had never committed a serious crime, and another 36% had not offended in the previous two years.

Under the present criteria, I qualify as a gang affiliate. There are members of my hapu who are gang members and I are associate with them on a regular basis. I was the former Chair of a College Board of Trustees in which about 15% of the parents were gang members, and we had affiliates on the Board. In that school community, three gang affiliates were undertaking tertiary study, five were working within the schools and health centre, and twenty-eight were regularly involved in voluntary work. Those living in the school community had contact with gangs on a daily basis; at school, community events, and sporting and cultural activities. Others are gang members by virtue of their birthright. I know of lawyers whose parents are gang members, and one Mongrel Mob leader who is married to an Anglican priest.

Second, he assumes that all gang members are hardened criminals ‘pursuing a life of crime outside and inside prison.’ That is true of some, but not all. The early members joined gangs for security, protection and fellowship – there are many gang affiliates who have not committed crime for many years.

Third, he assumes that all those denied bail are a serious risk to public safety, even though 56% of those remanded in custody, do not go on to serve a custodial sentence.

The Bail Amendment Act 2013, has made it very difficult to get bail. It reversed the burden of proof for defendants as to eligibility for serious offences, removed the presumption in favour of bail for defendants aged 17 to 19; and allowed the Court to remand defendants formerly bailable as of right.

As a result, the police oppose bail more frequently in the knowledge that the judiciary are unlikely to question their reasons for doing so. The President of the Law Society recently noted that 83 percent of adults who were charged in 2015 ended up with convictions - a 5 percent increase since 2009 and that some lawyers believe police are ramping up charges to use in bargaining, telling defendants that they will drop the serious charges in exchange for a guilty plea.

These changes have disproportionately affected Māori. First, the tightening of legal aid provisions has meant that most Māori defendants do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford competent legal representation. Second, they have difficulty articulating reasons to the Court as to why they should be granted bail. Third, they know they are less likely to be bailed in the face of a not guilty plea than pākehā and will be faced with the prospect of a lengthy time remanded in custody – On serious violence charges, Maori are twice more likely to be refused bail than pākehā. As a result, they actively respond to plea bargaining approaches by the police, in exchange for a guilty plea. They do so, in the hope that by pleading guilty, it will reduce the time spent in prison, either on remand, or on a sentence of imprisonment.

If they are not a threat to public safety, why are they refused bail? Often the reason is because of their socio-economic circumstances rather than their offending history – they are homeless, unemployed, have mental health issues, in dire poverty. Those young people who are remanded in custody, will be prospected by the gangs within 24 hours, be expected to buy or deal drugs, and will emerge even more likely to reoffend.

Let’s face it – institutional racism is alive and well in Aotearoa.
Kim Workman
Adjunct Research Associate
Institute of Criminology
Victoria University of Wellington

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