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Making rural communities safer - Phil Goff

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice

27 June 2005

Speech Notes

Making rural communities safer

LGNZ Rural Health and Community Safety Workshop
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
1pm, 27 June
Ladies and gentlemen; Mr Chair.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this Local Government New Zealand workshop on rural health and community safety.

It is great to see a turn out from right across the country. I believe we have participants here from the Far North through to Southland, and most places in between. It is pleasing to see that sort of support and participation, on issues that are important for rural New Zealand, and indeed all of us.

The drawing together of the two themes, rural health and community safety, I think makes a useful and important point. Both are critical influences on, if not determinants of, social wellbeing – the health of the community in the broad sense.

It is interesting to note the fact that crime is in part a reflection of social conditions. The graph of unemployment against crime rates over the last 15 years indicates a clear linkage. As unemployment peaked during the mid-1990s, so too did crime. As unemployment has fallen in recent years to historic lows, so too have crime rates.

We currently have the second lowest unemployment rate in the OECD. We also enjoy the lowest crime rate this country has seen since 1982 – since before the economic and social upheavals of the 80s and 90s. The crime rate is now 22 per cent lower than it was when it peaked in 1996.

The linkage is somewhat more complex than a straight-line connection between unemployment and crime. It is demonstrated more clearly in the two longitudinal studies commenced in Canterbury and Otago in the 1970s and continuing today. These track an initial 2000 babies born in the early 1970s.

They show conclusively that where families are dysfunctional and children are brought up in environments lacking in love and security, the prospects of these children contributing to negative social statistics – unemployment, alcohol or substances abuse, crime, truancy, teenage pregnancy, suicide and benefit reliance is approximately 100 times greater than the norm.

Addressing these factors and overall social conditions must therefore be a key part of our response. A safe society results when we crack down on the causes of crime – the environments in which it breeds – as well as being tougher on crime itself.

Over the last few years, New Zealand has benefited from a period of growth and stability characterised by growing employment, strong economic performance, and rebuilding of government services in all areas from housing and health to education and policing. The kiwi sense of fairness of opportunity is returning.

Working for Families is delivering significant targeted financial assistance to those who need it most, helping to create a better home and family environment. These factors all add up to communities that are stronger, more stable, and better supported by government as they develop and pursue opportunities than at any time in recent history.

These factors do contribute to lower crime. That is not to say that crime is no longer a problem. It most certainly is. Even if crime statistics are coming down, that is of limited consolation to you if you are a victim of crime.

Some of you may have noticed that this is an election year. We can therefore expect that the triennial law and order auction will soon begin in earnest.

Various political parties will promise to double police numbers, abolish parole and therefore double prisoner numbers, and so on. Frankly, utterly unrealistic, unaffordable, and disingenuous promises touted as the solution to crime will not advance real progress towards a safer society.

A range of things have been done over the last five years to strengthen policing and provide a tougher and more effective response to serious and recidivist offending:
- We have a police force of around 10,000 staff, with another 265 funded through this year's Budget – that's nearly 1300 more police than five years ago;
- The Police budget is now over $1.03 billion per year – $280 million more per year than in 1999;
- The Bail Act 2000 reversed the onus of proof for serious and repeat offenders and has resulted in over 1000 more high-risk offenders denied bail each year;
- The Sentencing Act 2002 has resulted in longer average sentences across the board, and substantially longer sentences for the worst crimes, including non-parole periods of up to 30 years. Preventive detention, to take another example was imposed twice as often last year as in any previous year;
- The Parole Act 2002 abolished automatic release and now places the safety of the community at the heart of every parole decision, with the result that dangerous offenders are now spending longer in jail;
- New DNA laws, second-hand dealer laws, extended supervision for child sex offenders, longer penalties for child pornography, to name a few, have been put in place.

And that is just a handful of the changes made in the last five years.

The effect of these changes has been dramatic. Crime resolution rates have leapt up: 45 per cent of crime is now being solved, compared to 36 per cent in the mid 1990s.

That means more prosecutions, more convictions, and more people being sent to prison than ever before, even though crime rates are falling. Our prisons are now literally full to overflowing and we have a major programme of prison building to accommodate the further projected increases over the next three to five years.

This is a hugely expensive business. It costs about $200 million to build a reasonable-sized prison. Those costs are justified to protect society from the most dangerous criminals – those who the current Sentencing and Parole Acts target for lengthy sentences.

But the cost-benefit analysis fails entirely when it comes to abolition of bail and parole, which would require ten new prisons at a cost of $2 billion, in order to keep low-risk people locked up for their full term, as opposition parties are suggesting. Much greater gains in community safety can be made, for a fraction of that cost, through effective and targeted crime prevention and early intervention.

It is time to look past the election year hype and focus on what actually works to make our communities safer. That is why the linkages between the factors that influence the social environment in which a child is brought up are so important.

Early intervention is necessary and effective at turning around behaviours that are likely to lead a child into a life of crime, before victims are created, or before borderline offending becomes entrenched.

Programmes such as Project Early, working in schools in Christchurch and now Auckland on a pilot basis; Family Start, which supports families with young children, and the Reducing Youth Offending programme would be a better investment.

Many of the successful early interventions are based on MST – MultiSystemic Therapy – or similar approaches. These take an overall view of the influences on a child's life that are causing problems or may provide solutions: the school environment, parenting, friends and peer group, and health factors – particularly relating to mental health and drug and alcohol abuse.

You have to deal with the causes, and not just treat the symptoms.

Early intervention is not an easy solution. It can be hard to target to those who need it most. It requires a very high level of coordination of effort between government and community agencies. It won't work in every case.

But where it does work, it prevents crime from taking place and spares the hurt and cost that might otherwise have been inflicted on the victims. And it costs just a few thousand dollars to prevent a criminal from being made, compared to more than $55,000 to lock a criminal up for just one year.

And if there is one thing we know about criminals, once they go inside, most will re-offend.

Crime prevention is also hugely important, and partnership between the Ministry of Justice's Crime Prevention Unit and local government is important in this respect.

Situational crime prevention – removing the opportunity for crime to occur – can be highly effective. Environmental design plays a large part. Good street lighting, open areas, regular vehicle and foot traffic flows are all important in deterring offending. The role of local authorities as town planners is key to this sort of crime prevention.

The Crime Prevention Unit works with local government to share knowledge, and help develop skills and strategies to implement crime prevention that effectively targets the problems that are unique to your district. Government funding support is provided through the CPU, as well as via departments like the Police, to help implement those programmes.

Jeremy Wood, the Director of the Crime Prevention Unit will be outlining these approaches in more detail, as well as some of the projects that are currently being funded, in the next presentation.

Resources, whether central or local government, are not unlimited, however. We need to remain focussed on outcomes, and ensuring that we can get the best outcomes from the resources that are available to us.

The partnership approach recognises that both central government and local government have a role and a responsibility for crime prevention. Central government through its various agencies can direct staff and resources, and has more ready access to a broader base or skills experience. Local government's knowledge of, and day-to-day interaction with, its community is critical to understanding and designing effective local solutions to local problems.

Our collective efforts to enhancing community safety in rural communities require a different approach to that we apply in large urban centres.

Police and local authorities need to adopt different strategies to target the particular crime concerns of a specific area. And local communities may have to engage in the solutions to local problems, in different ways than their urban counterparts.

Rural New Zealand has a reputation for tight-knit, supportive communities. The relative isolation demands it: you have to be able to rely on your neighbours for help and support, at least in the first instance. Distance means it takes longer for police to get where their help is needed.

Police resourcing for rural New Zealand is being maintained. For example, none of our one, two or thee-man rural police stations has been closed. In fact, some have increased in size as district populations and demands grow.

Following the recent 111 communications report, the government has also put $45 million more into police to fix the problems it highlighted. One that impacts directly on rural communities is the problem of radio channel linking, where rural police communications channels were sometimes linked to urban channels, resulting in the urban radio traffic crowding out rural communications. The provision of more channels and more dispatchers to work the busiest channels will mean more effective police communications in responding to rural events.

But there is a recognition that more work needs to be done to improve the engagement with rural communities to better understand their crime and community safety problems, and better coordinate the response of government agencies, in partnership with local communities, to those concerns.

Police are working on a rural crime reduction strategy – Superintendent Viv Rickard from Northland is leading that work.

Issues being looked at include getting better cohesiveness in the response of emergency services to crime and other major events such as extreme weather or natural disasters; setting up better intelligence-gathering systems to enable police operations to target rural crime more effectively; and developing a best-practice model for rural policing.

I hope that the Crime Prevention Unit and Police will soon be able to begin work on developing a rural crime prevention guide to complement this.

Thank you for the opportunity to join you today and to address the workshop on these issues. I wish you well for a productive and successful afternoon, and look forward to seeing the results of your deliberations.

ENDS

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