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Police Officer’s views on Poverty and Crime

Police Officer’s views on Poverty and Crime Supported by Evidence

The Police Association Northern delegate who asked Judith Collins about the link between crime and child poverty, didn’t deserve to be publicly savaged, says Dr Kim Workman, adjunct research associate at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University. “It was however, to be expected. One of the key strategies of neoliberal governments in the criminal justice space, is to deny its responsibility to address structural and social drivers of crime, such as poverty, social housing, and education, and instead emphasise individual accountability and responsibility.”

While it would be wrong to suggest that all people who live with considerable financial constraint will offend, research and practice shows strong links between crime and poverty. The Dunedin life-course study of 3,000 New Zealanders (and other research) shows, people from low socio-economic backgrounds are three times more likely to commit crime than those from wealthy families. Official crime rates are always more elevated in poorer communities, on both sides of the coin: victimisation rates are higher amongst the poor, and the poor are more likely to be arrested and convicted for offences. And, of course, social statistics in New Zealand strongly suggest that poverty is racialised: Māori and Pacific peoples experience ongoing, disproportionate levels of poverty.

It doesn’t take much to work out why this is so – there are a range of drivers. For young people who have grown up in violent communities, where constant physical self-defence is the only means of survival, acts of violence are an ingrained and apparently logical response to threats and challenges. For others, especially people with low self-esteem and limited work skills – and in areas where there are few jobs available – crime represents one of the few relevant sources of income and status. Children growing up in poorer households may be more vulnerable to some forms of maltreatment, which they then recycle, as learned behaviour, in their own parenting. They also experience transience, because their parents shift home in search of decent housing or work, which makes it hard for children to form lasting bonds; and they may not receive enough love and attention from overworked and chronically stressed parents.

Children on that trajectory will show conduct disorder and frequent defiance of authority. When schools respond punitively, the children will truant, become vulnerable to substance abuse, and link with others like themselves in gangs, in order to support each other’s anti-social behaviour. As they age, their behavioural disorders and criminal lifestyle may become increasingly entrenched and more difficult to change. As a consequence, their prospects for rehabilitation become progressively lower.

The Police Association delegates’ own experience and observations are in line with the evidence. Unless one espouses the repugnant belief that those people are inherently less ‘good’ than others, we must accept that growing up in poverty does damage individuals in ways that are not under their control and may predispose them to commit crime.

Kim Workman


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