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Cracking down on organised crime gangs

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Corrections

Speech Notes

17 September 2008

Cracking down on organised crime gangs

Speech to Wanganui Community Meeting,
Wanganui Racecourse

Crime is not just an issue that should be resurrected once every three years and addressed by simplistic slogans in election year campaigns.

It is a serious issue, because it hits at a fundamental human right and need to feel safe in your home, on the streets and in the community.

It is of course not a new issue. Crime has been a condition of human society, every society, since civilisation began. As such, talk of silver bullet solutions - capital punishment, boot camps, hard labour - all of which have been tried and failed as solutions isn't going to be the answer.

Crime is also an area of intense human interest, That is why television is overbrimming with crime dramas, and why the news devotes more time to crime that any other issue. Unlike countries in the world with much higher crime rates that ours, a homicide in New Zealand still makes headline stories.

Ask most New Zealanders and they will probably tell you that crime and murders are increasing rapidly in New Zealand. In fact last year, the murder rate was the lowest in a decade, and homicides have been stable over the last 10 years. Independent police figures show the rate of crime is dropping except in the area of violence, where the bulk of the rise is in reported domestic violence.

I welcome the greater readiness of people to report domestic violence - because it is domestic it is of no less seriousness than violence by strangers. It's probably more serious because it is a breach of trust.

Having said all of that, no level of crime is acceptable and it is right that we should focus on doing all that we can to bring crime rates down.

And we need to do that on two levels, and have done so.

Firstly, laws against crime have been hugely toughened in recent years - the Bail Act 2000, the Sentencing and Parole Acts 2002, laws to make methamphetamine a Class A drug with trafficking in it subject to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, legislation currently before Parliament which allows courts to strip criminal gang members of their assets and which doubles that maximum penalty for being a member of a criminal gang from 5 to 10 years.

Those laws, combined with the increase in police numbers by 2500 since 1999 and a much higher level crime resolution, have seen an unprecedented 71% rise in out prison population - up by around 3500.

I make no apology for being the promoter of many of those laws which target serious and recidivist offenders and increase the length of their sentence and the proportion of the sentences they serve.

But nor do I believe that you can stop crime simply by passing laws or by putting a higher and higher proportion of our population into prison. If that worked, a country like the United States which imprisons four times the number of people per head of population, should have a lower crime rate than us, when its homicide rate per capita is three times as high.

New Zealand does however at 188 inmates per 100,000 population have a much higher rate of imprisonment than England and Wales(152), Australia (130), Canada (108) and most European countries (under 100).

That's why, under our Effective Intervention programme, we are trying to keep less serious and lower risk offenders out of prison, utilising electronic monitoring and home detention. That stops first offenders and less serious offenders mixing with hardened criminals in prison, it keeps them in work, paying taxes, supporting their families while losing the freedom to leave their homes for leisure activities or going out into the community where they might reoffend.

Statistics show reoffending levels amongst those on home detention are much lower than for those who are imprisoned.

We are also focused on more intensive efforts to address the causes of offending.

We know for example that at the time of offending; over 50% of prison inmates are unemployed 80-90% are functionally illiterate or innumerate Over 80% are drug and alcohol addicted or abusers

For that reason we are now concentrating in prisons on giving inmates literacy and numeracy training. ensuring inmates get work skills, work habits and work experience. Around 65% of sentenced inmates are now in work. Dealing with drug and alcohol dependence, we have developed six drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, which have cut reoffending by around 13%

But prevention is better than cure, and we have intensified efforts in two areas I want to now focus on one is in dealing with organised criminal gangs, responsible for a hugely disproportionate amount of our crime. The second is early intervention, tackling the causes of crime, particularly those which negatively affect human development and behaviour at an early age.

Firstly, gangs.
I want firstly to dispel the notion that I'm talking about this in Wanganui because it is seen as a gang city. Wanganui should not be tarred with this image on the basis of the tragic incident involving the death of baby Jhia. Gangs - whether motorbike, ethnic, mafia, or triad - affects all parts of New Zealand and the world. Wanganui in fact has a no higher crime rate than many other areas.

We are targeting not gangs per se but their criminal activities. Anyone in New Zealand has the right to come together in a group and call or label themselves whatever they will - that is not the issue.

The issue is that most if not all gangs come together with a focus of organising criminal activity and it is that organised criminal activity that is not tolerable. The street thug who wears a patch and commits violence ought not to be excused or tolerated. But in terms of threats to society, the one who wears a suit not a patch and drives a Mercedes rather than a Harley but makes his living out of organising crime and drug trafficking needs to be a key target.

Methamphetamine is a scourge on our and other societies. Its manufacture and importation has grown over time and it destroys peoples lives. Worst, it has the effect not only of pushing people into crime to pay for their habits, but also of making them irrationally aggressive.

The fact is that in the 1200 busts of Clan labs since 2000, over 75 per cent of those involved with manufacturing and pushing the drug have gang associations. And when the police bust the gangs, they find a fortune in cash, and in stolen goods.

The police are targeting gangs, with over 26,000 charges being brought against gang members and associates last year. That is precisely what they should be doing and they have the full backing of the Government.

The Criminal Proceed (Recovery) Bill before Parliament allows for civil forfeiture - the confiscation of assets found to be the proceeds of crime. The standard of proof required for this is the civil standard - the balance of probabilities. When the Court finds that the standard has been reached, the assets of the individual will be subject to confiscation, with the onus of proof transferred to the individual to show why all assets, should not be confiscated by having to prove they were legitimately acquired.

This law when brought into effect will enable us to fundamentally undermine the financial power of gang bosses and members, by stripping them of the proceeds of crime, whether or not that is accompanied by a criminal conviction based on the standard of beyond reasonable doubt.

The Organised Crime (Penalties and Sentencing) Bill increases the maximum penalty for participation in an organised criminal group from five to ten years, and makes that participation an aggravating factor in determining the sentence imposed.

Today, Annette King and I have announced new initiatives - stronger police powers in search and surveillance - and a big boost in police staffing resources applied to combating organised crime.

And if South Australian legislation on non-association orders against people involved in organised crime proves effective, we will look at adapting a similar approach here.

Finally, I want to finish on the issue of early intervention. A child's behavioural patterns are fundamentally determined in the first years of their life.

Taking into account foetal dug and alcohol syndrome, it actually starts from conception.

Too many people who develop serious behavioural problems, including those who end up in prison, start life heavily disadvantaged by physical and sexual abuse, neglect and poor parenting. That is a disaster for them in terms of the quality of their lives and a disaster for society.

Much has been done to strengthen support for children and to deal with dysfunctional families.

Programmes like Family Start/Early Start, intensive home visits, Strengthening Families, which coordinates support for families with multiple needs, the Social Workers in Schools Programme, B4 School Checks to identify any health or behavioural concerns for four-year-olds, Project Early, the Hippy programme and many more are all effective ways of helping ensure kids get a better start in life.

We're already doing a lot but greater investment in preventing problems before they start is more effective and less costly, both in financial and human terms, than waiting for problems to develop and then using expensive measures like imprisonment to try to contain them later.

Thank you for coming along today to hear our perspective, and we now look forward to hear yours and answering your questions.


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