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A future with choices: Power

Simon Power MP
National Party Law & Order Spokesman

A future with choices: Power

Speech to National Party 2006 Annual Conference

The problem facing law and order in this country, as in other areas of government, is a lack of leadership. Issues have been managed, not led.

Labour came to power claiming to be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime.

Right rhetoric – pity about the lack of commitment to it.

But even the drive for tougher sentences came from without rather than within, in response to the 1999 referendum.

Now Labour claim that has led to an even bigger problem: too many people in prison.

It’s an embarrassment because it is a visible reminder of how much crime has been committed in this country. And those prisons cost a lot.

It’s also an embarrassment for a Prime Minister grooming herself for higher international honours to have an imprisonment rate second only to the United States.

No matter that crime costs this country $9.1 billion a year, with the bulk of that borne by the victims rather than the Government, from 1.8 million criminal acts.

No matter that the rate of violent crime increased by 7% last year, the biggest increase since 2000.

And no matter that the increasing number of prisoners has come not from putting the worst criminals away for longer, but by putting more offenders away for shorter sentences.

The Corrections Department reports state that the number of inmates sentenced to six months or less has increased “to a striking degree”, by two-thirds since 2001.

It’s being driven by prison sentences for driving while disqualified (up 79%), dangerous driving (doubled), drunk driving (up 70%) and petty theft (doubled).

What has been the Government’s response?

The Minister of Justice asked the Law Commission to think of ways to soften sentences. The Minister of Finance asked Treasury to look at ways of letting prisoners out to save money. And the Minister of Corrections got sent to Finland.

After spending two hours looking at one Finnish prison, he returned singing the praises of their low prison rate and use of “open prisons” where inmates have relative freedom to come and go.

No doubt this is the kind of thing Labour have in store for those troublesome short-term prisoners.

After all, the Minister did say that “almost 30 percent of the inmates” currently in jail are “no risk to society”. And they’re already trialling the release on electronic monitoring of remand prisoners who would otherwise be in jail.

But despite reaching historic lows in the late 1990s, Finland’s prison population has increased by a staggering 40% from 2000 to 2005.

And, for all the enthusiasm about open prisons, 90% of Finnish inmates are committed to closed prisons that are becoming rapidly overcrowded. They have twice the number of escapes than here – strangely over half from those open prisons.

Unlike Labour, National won’t steal its law and order policy from wherever the Prime Minister went on her last skiing holiday. And unlike Labour, National will not accept a lower standard of public safety, just to get around a perceived political problem.

The people in our prisons right now are there because they committed crimes against other New Zealanders. We should not reduce the number of prisoners by letting more of them out, or by telling the police to put away fewer crooks.

The only honest way to cut the number of prisoners is to cut crime, and that should be the priority. Anything else is an exercise in smoke and mirrors.

Labour has failed to lead by failing to act.

Yes, they have produced strategy after strategy after strategy, a specialty of this Government.

But we now know that their flagship Crime Reduction Strategy has been criticised by Treasury because it has no goals, no links with justice spending, limited measurement of outcomes, and no accountability for implementing the strategy.

Labour may have strategies. But what they don’t have is a plan to cut crime.

National will offer the leadership that is needed. We will stop patronising the public with the pretence that writing a strategy document is a substitute for action.

Those documents are so removed from the reality of those who deal with law and order at the street level, that the Government cannot possibly claim that they have had any effect.

Bill English has already pointed to the need for a plain English school curriculum.

We need to do the same for law and order: say what we are going to do, why, and most importantly, how.

Similarly, we need to be straight with New Zealanders about what the likely costs of law and order policy will be. And we can’t be naïve about how we assess these costs: they must be balanced against the staggeringly high costs of not dealing with crime.

We need truth in the rhetoric of sentencing. In Opposition, Labour tried to throw off its “soft on crime” image by exploiting individual cases and promising tougher sentences. It’s too easy to pick that scab. It takes courage to apply some ointment.

National must be defined not just by what it is against. We have to see the deeper lessons in the individual injustices, since only systematic changes will stop systemic dysfunction.

National is not vulnerable to the claim of being soft on crime. Like the new generations of New Zealanders, we are not beholden to rigid ideological views.

National is open to new ideas, such as private prisons, and will judge them based on whether they work – whether they do the job required while being cost-effective for the taxpayer – rather than whether they fit some narrow ideology.

And, to stay true to the goal of reducing crime, we must be solutions-focused in targeting its causes.

Labour have already given up trying to reverse what is a major source of further crime – those already behind bars. One day, they’re coming out.

The fact that 42.3% of prisoners will be re-convicted within one year of release means that for many, a prison sentence is not an end to their offending, just an enforced career break.

A growing number of offenders, with wider problems such as substance abuse and mental health issues, are going in and out of prison for short sentences, without getting any rehabilitation.

Our prisons may have warm floors, but they also have revolving doors.

I recently visited Manawatu Prison. The prisoners didn’t complain about conditions – well, why would they? They said they couldn’t correct their lives with rehabilitation courses or employment opportunities because they didn’t exist.

Make no mistake, these people must be punished for their crimes against others. A number of them will never be able to be rehabilitated. But not all of them are hard-wired for a life of crime.

If there’s no attempt to short that circuit, then releasing them back into society is just like re-setting the clock on a time bomb. All it will create is more victims. More pain.

National will do what the Government is clearly failing to do: reduce the number of victims by putting more effort into crime prevention. Turn the clock back further, and we must focus on youth crime, which is growing in intensity.

Violent crimes committed by offenders under 16 have increased by 27% since 1999, and sexual crimes are up 46%.

It will dismay you to learn that the government agency in charge of youth justice is CYF.

Once again, Labour’s failure to lead is all too apparent. Three years after the baseline review of CYF implored the Government to dedicate more of its resources to youth justice, a recent report admitted that it was still being neglected.

This is the same outfit that allows some young offenders to have as many as 10 family group conferences, but can’t tell us whether they actually work or not.

But all is not lost. The Government has a Youth Offending Strategy!

Unfortunately, the Ministers’ Group that is supposed to be in charge of that strategy has not met since March 2003.

If we want to stop young people on a trajectory towards a life of crime, we must catch them before they deny themselves a choice. That means keeping kids in school.

Chief Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft describes education as our ultimate crime-fighting tool. Not surprising when 52% of prisoners have no qualifications of any sort.

But, despite promising a national student database for three elections in a row, Labour still cannot tell us how many children are missing out on their best chance to escape a criminal life.

And despite the existence of, wait for it, a Youth Policing Strategy, that document mentions truancy only once – in a diagram. The cruel irony is that it’s a diagram listing risk factors for youth crime.

Labour have had seven years to deal to youth crime, after putting it on their pledge card in 1999 and 2002.

My message to you is that we need to have the courage to shift our thinking, our energy, and our resources towards the prevention of crime. That means we also need to wind the clock back even further, and take a hard look at the kind of society we live in.

For most of us, the thought of stealing someone’s property or physically attacking them in the street is so utterly alien, that to even contemplate it, to take one step towards it, would trigger pangs of genuine torment. But for an increasing number of our children, those feelings are missing.

Even if some of us were to commit a crime in the heat of the moment, we would immediately feel regret and remorse. But for an increasing number of our children, that empathy is missing.

The shock we feel each time we are confronted with the news of yet another violent and degrading crime goes beyond disturbance over the details. We recoil because we cannot understand the mindset of someone who would do such a thing to another human being.

The increasing intensity of these crimes points to something missing in the development of the offender. They often come from families that live on the fringes of our society, who don’t follow its collective rules and norms.

Parents are the first government that our children live under. For too many children that guidance is missing. Some see the seeds of this in dependency on the benefit system, but that risks labelling the many who are in genuine need.

It’s not a matter of what these families live on, it’s how they choose to live. And it’s a lifestyle that they are passing on to their children, who are beginning to commit crimes beyond the conscience and comprehension of most adults.

We need to bring these families back into the circle.

Of all of Labour’s failures, what disturbs me the most is Treasury’s finding that the Crime Reduction Strategy has “no particular focus on stopping inter-generational crime or consideration of the role of early interventions in areas such as education, health, income support and housing”.

What good is a crime reduction strategy that does not address the factors that might actually reduce crime?

We’ve got to harness the power of all of those policy tools if we are going to make a real difference.

The enduring solutions are not to be found in locking up offenders at younger and younger ages, but to reach them at the earliest stages of development, when character, empathy and responsibility can be shaped, and a future defined. A future with choices. And a future with something that’s perhaps become a four-letter word in politics these days. Hope.

Labour will inevitably respond to this speech by blaming the previous National Government. Well I have news for them. It’s been seven years since then.

And after seven years of failed strategies, it’s about time Labour became acquainted with a little something we in the National Party call ‘taking responsibility for your actions’.

Or in their case, inaction. Because if Labour won’t show some direction, we will.

It’s time to start moving again.


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