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What do We Mean By ‘Public Safety”

What do We Mean By ‘Public Safety”

“Everyone has a different view about what ‘public safety’ means” Kim Workman, Director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, told the 350 persons attending the International Restorative Justice Conference in Wellington today. “The term has crept into policy documents and political manifestos, in the absence of any discussion about what it means.

“The prevailing political and departmental t view of what constitutes public safety comes from the recognition that persons arrested and sentenced to prison are not randomly selected from our society. They are disproportionately poor, disproportionately Maori, and with disproportionate health, addiction and mental health conditions. They also have poor educational and employment skills, marginal housing, and more likely to come from violent neighbourhoods and dysfunctional families and whanau. They are publicly perceived as an underclass, presenting a safety risk to the law abiding community.

An Alternative View of Public Safety

There is, however, another, broader view of what constitutes ‘public safety’. Although recidivism is clearly an important indicator of criminal justice system effectiveness, it is not the ultimate measure for ensuring public safety. The term captures a different quality; one that is more integral to the functioning of communities and reflects the collective sense of well-being beyond the aggregation of individual behaviours. The imprisonment of a rapist may bring community relief, and his release public fear – even though he may never re-offend. A violent gang leader may be released, and return to the manufacture of drugs, and cause widespread social harm, without being rearrested for his continuing crime. Public safety is affected in both cases, but by ways not measured in the recidivism data.

Public safety can also be affected by ways other than the nation’s reintegration policies. Until recently, Community Probation adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward parole violations. Returning an offender to prison for minor technical violations may have little impact on recidivism rates. However, removing large numbers of parolees for short, unproductive stints in prison may be highly destabilising to communities where many parolees live, ultimately creating a sense that the state is capriciously depriving citizens of their liberty without regard for the long-term consequences. In such a scenario, the sense of public safety may be undermined, not enhanced, by the actions of the state.

Public safety invites a community wide analysis. In crime reduction efforts with high-crime communities, e.g. parts of South Auckland, the cycle of removal and return has so weakened the social networks and institutions that prevent crime – that crime rates may actually increase.

The concept of public safety provides a useful framework for understanding the net effects of the current policies that result in the arrest, imprisonment and release of large numbers of individuals, mostly men, from impoverished communities. Ultimately, the key measure is the way that communities and families function, and in large part, their sense of safety in their relationships with each other.

Kim Workman
Rethinking Crime and Punishment

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