Heather Roy

14 July 2018

“Tough on crime” – worn as a badge of honour

“Soft on crime” – an abuse hurled at those who don’t believe in throwing away the key.

Voters reward political parties who are tough on crime but what has this really achieved?

Answer: burgeoning prisons, repeat offending and teaching young criminals how to become hardened criminals. Yet to question this approach is to be considered ‘soft on crime’. Tough vs soft is unhelpful and outdated language when what is needed is ‘Smart Justice’ – punishing those who break the law but rehabilitating those we can.

A wise former MP told me once that every issue has a tipping point and often it happens when least expected. I’ve wondered this week if we might see real reform of our justice system soon. It’s certainly long overdue but two things happened this week that give me hope that smart justice is close.

The first was the announcement by Justice Minister Andrew Little that he has appointed former National Minister, Hon Chester Borrows, as head of his Criminal Justice Reform Advisory Group. Setting politics aside, his choice is an excellent one. Chester Borrows has been a policeman, lawyer, MP and Minister and is well equipped to lead this group looking at reform. The appointment also signals a move away from the popular “tough on crime” stance. It’s clear that the lock ‘em up and throw away the key approach hasn’t worked. Our justice system requires a flexibility that allows for the incarceration of those who pose a danger to the public but a system that doesn’t just teach young first time offenders how to become career criminals. I’ve previously written that I’m content with a “soft on crime” approach if it reduces repeat offending.

I don’t agree with everything Andrew Little is proposing for New Zealand’s Justice system, but his big picture view of how to deal with a burgeoning prison muster, streamlining the court system and focus on rehabilitation rather than micromanaging punitive punishment measures is refreshing. When he announced his advisory group, he talked about the need to think more widely that just a Corrections Department approach to punishing criminals. Health and Education input for example is crucial if repeat offending is to be reduced. This isn’t ‘soft on crime’, it’s smart justice.

The second significant event of the week was the release of a book called Straight from the Pig’s Mouth by former Detective Sergeant Al Lester. He says “making drugs legal would take the power away from criminals who make huge amounts of money from the trade – and stop those committing offences to fund drug habits”. His views are supported by high profile criminal lawyer Nigel Hampton QC.

Both talk about decriminalization, not legalization. Lester says “Decriminalising drugs is different to legalizing drugs, in that users would not be put through the justice system. Drug dealers would still face punitive measures”. He calls for drug users to be treated as patients rather than criminals with drug use falling under the health system.

When I wrote a recent blog post on this issue- The War on Drugs – a Battle Lost – it got little response. However, I, like Lester and Hampton believe that disempowering the gangs and other drug dealers by decriminalizing drugs is smart justice.  I’m hoping we are reaching a tipping point and it is time at last for the debate.

Whatever initiatives come out of the Ministerial Advisory Group work and subsequent policy work the rights of victims must carefully considered. The punishment for those committing crimes against a person should – as best as possible – reinstate the position of the victim to the pre-crime state. It’s not always easy, but giving victims the ability to speak at parole hearings, victim impact statements, reconciliation conferences often go some way to healing those who have been violated through no fault of their own.