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Essay on NZ by Theodore Dalrymple

Press Release from the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Please see the attached opinion piece byTheodore Dalrymple, a retired British psychiatrist turned writer who was recently brought to NZ by the Sensible Sentencing Trust to offer a new perspective on crime and its contributing factors. Dalrymple spent 2 weeks in NZ and left to return home last Friday, (Dalrymple is a pseudonym, his real name is Dr Tony Daniels).

In the attached essay Dr.Dalrymple is scathing about N Z's violent crime, pathetic sentences, and the inadequate, even casual, reaction by officials.

Dalrymple's comments about the recent passing of retrospective legislation make compulsory reading.


24th October, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired British psychiatrist turned writer who was recently brought to NZ by the Sensible Sentencing Trust to offer a new perspective on crime and its contributing factors. Dalrymple spent 2 weeks in NZ and left to return home last Friday, (Dalrymple is a pseudonym, his real name is Dr Tony Daniels).


Every visitor to New Zealand is enchanted by the smiling beauty of its landscapes and delighted by the friendliness of its people; and so I felt rather churlish, on a recent visit, to concentrate my attention so much on the phenomenon of crime in the country. But even if I had not been invited to New Zealand by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, I would have been alerted by reading the daily press to the existence of a dark side of New Zealand life: for every day there were stories of criminal brutality to which the official reaction seemed inadequate, or even casual.

On the day on which I left, a young man accused of murder made a vulgar and menacing gesture in the very court in which he was being tried to the sister of his alleged victim. Such a gesture could only have been indicative of the deepest possible contempt for the law, a contempt that was no doubt the fruit of long experience.

The day before, I had read of a young man who had attacked an old woman viciously, fracturing two of her facial bones and causing her other injuries from which it is unlikely that she will ever make a full physical or psychological recovery. For this, he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that New Zealand is a country in which young men may with impunity attack old ladies with a murderous intensity; indeed, the government might as well issue them with an invitation to do so.

Of course, terrible things have always been reported in newspapers, for the reason first that they are interesting and second that they have always happened (or rather been done). In this sense, there is nothing new under the sun. But the statistics, as well as daily experience, tell the same story: despite New Zealand’s relative prosperity, it has the doubtful honour of being among the most violent and crime-ridden societies in the western world.

I spent a day in Napier, a pleasant town of the kind that one might expect retirees to choose: a place with a beautiful coast and a balmy climate. Yet I was told by a local, who did not appear to me to be particularly timid (quite the reverse) that I should not venture out late at night in Napier, a conclusion I would in any case have come to myself when I heard the legion of Boy Racers - as I was told they were called - in the town.

For several hours, a large number of these young men careered through the streets in their cars with sawn-off exhausts, completely unopposed, as far as I could tell, by any representatives of the law. They were letting the whole town know that it was they, not the law, who ruled in this town after dark, and woe betide anyone who tried in practice to deny it.

It was as if the whole society had given up trying to maintain order, it had become fearful of its own children.

And I don’t suppose that I have to elaborate on the likely future of a society that fears its own children, or at least enough of them to retreat indoors when they come out to play.

At this point, no doubt many will retort that the children in question have experienced a terrible upbringing: quite so, but whose fault is that? It is not as if we lacked all knowledge of what kind of arrangements were most likely to provide children with a decent start in life; rather, we systematically refuse to draw the obvious practical conclusions from that knowledge and pretend that anything goes. We reap what we sew.

Besides, it is worth pointing out, what seemed to come as a surprise to many New Zealanders to whom I spoke, that the principal victims of crime are people of the very same social stratum as that from which most criminals are drawn. To excuse criminals and promote leniency towards them on the grounds of their bad upbringing is therefore not generosity to the poor: it is to expose the poor to the further depredations of the criminals in their midst.

Here it is worth drawing a distinction between the primary prevention of crime (preventing people from becoming criminals in the first place) and the secondary prevention of crime (preventing criminals from re-offending). The two are very different, but they are often confused.

With regard to secondary prevention, we are often told that New Zealand has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the western world, and so it has, but imprisonment is used frivolously, if I may so put it.

One sentence of four years has a very different effect from sixteen sentences of three months, although the total amount of time spent in prison might be the same. One often finds in the most horrible cases in New Zealand that the culprit has been convicted scores, or even hundreds, of times.

This means that certain genuinely illiberal measures that have been proposed because of the apparent impotence of the criminal justice system in the face of the most ill-disposed people in society, such as the prejudicial introduction of the criminal record of the accused in a trial, are unnecessary and beside the point. If a man has already been convicted 99 times, the problem is not obtaining a conviction the hundredth time, but taking his crime seriously once he has been convicted.

Let me conclude by mentioning an episode that I think is full of sinister import for the rule of law in New Zealand, namely the passing with indecent haste retrospective legislation exculpating politicians from electoral wrongdoing. By this means, they no doubt unwittingly turned themselves into accomplices of the criminal fraternity: for make no mistake about it, the criminally-inclined are alive to every hypocrisy committed by the law-abiding, and use it, albeit dishonestly, to justify their own behaviour. If the proximate cause of crime is the decision to commit it, this is important.

All in all, New Zealand appeared to me to exhibit the same moral frivolity disguised as care and social concern as my own dear country, Britain. I can only hope that I am entirely mistaken. After all, I was in New Zealand for only a couple of weeks.


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