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The crime wave and young New Zealanders

Hon Jim Anderton

Member of Parliament for Wigram
Progressive Leader

30 January 2008 Comment

The crime wave and young New Zealanders

Are we experiencing an unusual spate of violence involving young New Zealanders? And if we are, what's behind it all?

There were ten homicides in January. The fatal stabbing of Krishna Naidu, the fatal stabbing of a 15-year-old in Manurewa and the death of British tourist Karen Aim shocked us. Last year, like the year before, we were all shocked to hear stories of very small kids killed or abused.

It's hard to imagine that things could ever have been worse. In fact, they have been. The rate of homicide is actually coming down.

Because the numbers are statistically small, they are volatile in any one year, so analysts look at the trends over five year periods. The most recent completed period was 2000 to 2004. Although it's too soon to be fully confident, the results since 2004 suggest the trends are still going the same way: fewer violent deaths.

In the five years to 2004, 279 people died as a result of assault or intentional injury. That was down from 293 in the previous five years and well down from the 347 people who died in the five years 1990 to 1994.

Around 1.2 people out of every hundred thousand are homicide victims. That is a significant drop from around 1.5 per hundred thousand in the early eighties. In the late eighties, the rate of homicides soared to 2.0 out of every 100,000 population. So New Zealand is a lot less violent today than it was then.

But New Zealand is still a violent place for young people. The group most likely to die as a result of violence are young people aged between 15 and 24. There were around 2.3 deaths out of every hundred thousand in that age group from 2000 to 2004.

Those least likely to die from an assault are the over-65s, and children. Among children, the risk is highest among the youngest. The assault death rate among under-5s is four times as high as the rate among 5-14 year olds.

Death rates in all age groups were lower from 2000 to 2004 than they were in the late eighties.

It's not only homicide rates that are falling. Our suicide rate peaked at 16.7 deaths per 100,000 population between 1996 and 1998, higher than at any time since the late twenties (which also happened to be a time of great economic hardship.)

So what could explain the pattern? Violent death rates rose very steeply in the late eighties, stayed high in the nineties and have since begun to come down. What else was going on that could explain the crime wave?

The pattern of violence follows exactly a pattern of economic devastation. When unemployment rocketed and families were hammered by hard economic times, offending rose dramatically.

As academic Dr Ranginui Walker has pointed out, the members of dysfunctional families are usually alienated, uneducated, unemployed welfare beneficiaries whose lives are marred by substance and alcohol abuse.

These effects fall disproportionately on some members of society. If it's true that offending gets worse when economic times are hard, then you would expect to see worse outcomes among groups that were hardest hit by hard economic times.

No group was hit harder in the eighties and nineties than Maori. In 1991 the Maori unemployment rate was 26%, whereas for non-Maori it was 9%.

The former CYFS Chief Social Worker Mike Doolan, who is now a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury, looked at Maori offending. He found that from 1977 to 1987, child killings among Maori were comparable to non-Maori. In the 1990s they increased to 2.40 killings per 100,000, whereas non-Maori were 0.67 per 100,000. Between 2001 and 2005, the figures for Maori child deaths have shown a significant reduction and at the end of that period were down to 1.34 per 100,000.

In other words, child abuse in Maori homes was higher when family economic circumstances were tougher.

And why should we be surprised by that? To put it another way, higher rates of child deaths in Maori homes are a commentary on the economic circumstances of the home, not on Maori.

As we've neared full employment and lifted more children out of poverty than at any time since the Great Depression, rates of youth killing have been falling. But they won't fall enough until we have a still more equal society, where all our families have economic security and opportunity.

Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime is an old slogan, but it’s just as relevant today as it ever was. Hard economic times don't excuse violent abuse. Our experiences simply tell us that if we want to bring down the level of violence then we need to be realistic about causes. The high unemployment and economic wasteland policies of the eighties and nineties created a predictable environment of family dysfunction, stress and hardship that in turn produced predictable results. The chickens have inevitably come home to roost.

There is a direct motorway from economic carnage to violent crime. If we want a safer, less violent community, then we can't throw people on the scrapheap and we can't tolerate high unemployment. A stronger, more caring New Zealand, is a safer New Zealand. No amount of political posturing or empty rhetoric will change that.


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