Sunday, 15 June 2008

eye for an eye

of the 5 events i attended yesterday, the most difficult was the meeting organised by the nz central indian association. as part of their AGM, they called in members of political parties and local government, in order to express their feelings about the murder of navtej singh.

there were many speakers. there were genuine concerns expressed about the safety of small business owners, and the risks they faced every day they went to work. there was a lot of anger and emotion about the tragedy itself as well as a number of other murders in the last few years. this was a community that was feeling unsafe and unprotected. they saw themselves as the quintessential hard-working kiwi battlers, the ones that put in the kind of hours that most of us are not prepared to. 12 to 14 hour days, seven days a week.

these feelings were valid. it was when they started talking about law and order, and proposed solutions that i felt disturbed. here is a brief summary of the various things that came up:
- they wanted tougher sentencing for criminals. sentences were far too short. the widow would now suffer for the rest of her life, while the offenders would be out in a few years.
- prison life is just like living in a hotel. all this heating that they get in prison, when there were people in manurewa who couldn't even afford heating. prisoners got three meals a day in prison, when they didn't even get that on the outside. no wonder they weren't afraid of getting caught.
- one of the suggestions that came out of this was that prisons should be outsourced to asia. criminals should be sent to prisons in thailand and the like, not only saving taxpayer money, but also providing a much more effective deterrent.
- singapore had a low crime rate, so we should copy what they were doing.
- this country was soft on crime, and the judges were useless (caring more about the offender than the victims) or toothless (didn't have the power to give strong punitive sentences.
- prisons were too full, which was why offenders were getting light sentences.
- there were not enough police; and police hadn't responded effectively. we should be doubling the number of police, and there was no point in cutting taxes. that money should be put towards increasing police numbers.
- parole should be done away with.
- there were too many handouts, lots of money going into housing and education in south auckland, which resulted in people feeling like they were entitled to handouts. they had no sense of responsibility.
- there are too many gangs, and too much drug trafficking and usage.
- the government is doing nothing, politicians are useless, and all these complaints have been made time and again but nothing has been done.

there was a lot said, but basically revolved around these themes. even though it was pointed out that the length of sentences had almost doubled since tougher sentencing laws had been brought in, even though they were told that longer sentences didn't act as a deterrent, it was a message they didn't want to hear. harsh and cruel punishment was what they wanted. an eye for an eye, a life for a life. i wonder what gandhi would have said.

there were some good suggestions. safety education for business owners was talked about. there was some discussion around the number of liquor shops in south auckland, which has gone up from something like 80 to about 220 within the last three years. there wasn't too much of a call for these to be shut down, given that the south asian community would be involved in running many of them. but it's an area that definitely needs attention.

there were calls for more patrols by police, which ron mark, of all people, is complaining about. and the sensible sentencing trust are right in there, using this tragedy to call for tougher parole.

in all the noise and anger, and the words of the widow saying she "can never forgive" the offenders, there seems to be no room for reasoned and effective approach to justice policy. the time where people are feeling most hurt and afraid is hardly the time to tell them that effective rehabilitation is needed for prisoners; that prison is not a hotel and in fact tends to make criminals worse than when they went in; that effective support for families and children from the youngest age is required to ensure everyone feels engaged and a part of society; that such programmes take time to take effect - they take a generation, there are no policies which will give a 3-year turn around in time for the next election; that revenge is never useful as a justice policy and will not make our society a safer place; that the evidence shows that harsher sentencing doesn't lead to a drop in crime.

it's not the best time because they aren't listening. but when is a good time? and where is a good place? i wish i knew.


DeepRed said...

The sad fact is, if the eye-for-an-eye lobby had its way, it could end up with some major blowback. ie, the Los Angeles riots of 1992, or the riots in France in 2005.

Ben R said...

The suggestion of longer sentences being effective in reducing crime is backed up by the US example in the 90's. Consider Steven Levitt's paper in Journal of Economic Perspectives 18: 163–190 which sets out how longer sentences were a major factor in the crime reduction during that decade.