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The Column: New Zealand CAN Be Safe Again

The Column: New Zealand CAN Be Safe Again

By Muriel Newman

The fear of crime is alive and well in most New Zealand communities. At one end of the scale we are so concerned about the young that we no longer let our children walk to school on their own. At the other, we worry about the safety of the elderly who live alone. And then we hanker after the days when we could leave our houses and cars unlocked, and safely go for a midnight stroll.

Can we ever turn back the clock to those safe and carefree days?

The answer is yes – if there is the political will. The reality is that maintaining law and order is a core role of government. It is our democratic right to feel safe in our homes and on our streets. We felt so strongly about this that, in 1999, 94 percent of voters supported Norm Withers’ referendum calling for a tougher approach to law and order.

The Labour Government’s response has been to ignore that message and pass legislation that is so soft on crime that Judges are now openly criticising the new laws.

Those sentencing laws are a disgrace. Many violent offenders can now get out on parole after serving only one third of their court-imposed sentence. In fact, Bailey Kurariki – one of those convicted of killing pizza delivery man Michael Choy in 2001 – having served less than a third of his seven-year sentence, is now eligible to apply for home detention. In January, he will be eligible to apply for parole. The message this sends out is that crime pays – because even if you do get caught, the consequences are not severe.

As one police officer, with almost 30 years’ experience, put it: “I have never worked under the conditions that now prevail. Lack of police staff, more violent attacks and very weak sentences for serious offences have allowed criminals to get the upper hand”.

In reality, we do not have to put up with increasing crime. If New York could be turned from one of the world’s most dangerous large cities into one of the safest, then we can do the same in New Zealand with good laws, good policing and good resourcing.

Labour’s new sentencing law changes must be repealed. Sentences should mean what they say and offenders should serve their full sentence. If they do the crime, they should do the time. That means abolishing parole and ensuring that sentences are cumulative, rather than concurrent.

Another law in need of strengthening is the Proceeds of Crime Act, which should be changed in line with Australian law. That would mean the unemployed gang member who owns a $40,000 Harley Davidson would have to be able to prove how he legitimately earned the money to buy it, rather than police having to prove it was acquired through illegitimate activity.

Non-association laws also need to be strengthened, making it illegal for known offenders – particularly former prison inmates – to associate with one another. In fact, they should be under a mandatory supervision regime where they are helped into a job and supervised closely to prevent them re-offending.

Mandatory sentences for some offences – such as a five-year jail sentence for conviction of firearm possession while carrying out any crime – should also be considered.

Good policing is also critical.

In many police districts, police are overwhelmed by the challenges they face. Part of the problem is understaffing – New Zealand is one of the most under-policed countries in the western world. To match Australia, on a per head of population basis, we would need 1,700 more police, 2,500 to match the UK, and 4,000 to equal the US.

In the Budget, police requested 169 more sworn officers, but were only given 50 – to start in January 2004.

New Zealand desperately needs to implement a zero tolerance approach to crime: cracking down on petty crime, halting the graduation to more serious crime; targeting the five percent of repeat offenders who are responsible for almost 90 percent of crime. Making better use of DNA technology with compulsory DNA testing of all prisoners and data-matching with unsolved crime.

But these initiatives require proper resourcing: since Labour has been in power, police funding has been cut from 2.03 percent of all Government spending to 1.94 percent. Those cuts must be reversed, so that we can afford more police, and so that we don’t hold up good policing. The huge backlog in DNA analysis, where some 1,500 crime samples are awaiting testing – some for over a year – means that offenders remain free to continue their crime spree.

As a nation, if we seriously want to get on top of the crime problem, we must address the causes of crime – in particular, family breakdown and welfare dependency.

It has been estimated that every 10 percent in family breakdown leads to a 17 percent increase in serious violent crime. That is largely because boys growing up without their fathers – and most custody outcomes in New Zealand alienate fathers – are far more likely to attach themselves to peer groups or gangs, than boys who grow up with their dads.

That is why it is so important that, like Australia, we look to introduce shared parenting, to ensure that our young men – and young women – have strong bonds, not only with their mums but, their dads, as they navigate that dangerous path to maturity.

In reality, the DPB is largely responsible for New Zealand’s huge rate of family breakdown, because it pays couples to separate. But welfare has a significant link to crime: police tell me that around six to seven people out of every 10 they arrest are on a benefit of one sort or another.

That is why welfare reform – incorporating time limits and full-time work for the dole – is so essential for the able-bodied. Welfare reform would give more beneficiaries a life of opportunity, it would enable working families to receive some tax relief, and it would be a key factor in reducing crime.

New Zealand can be transformed into a safe society if we invest in more police with a mandate to take a zero tolerance approach to crime, if we strengthen our laws – including truth in sentencing and mandatory DNA-testing of prisoners – and if we bring in welfare reform and family law reform as a national priority.

This is the basis of ACT’s plan to make New Zealand safe. If you agree with these goals, I would urge you to help us by giving us your support.

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