Opinion: It is election year in New Zealand, and time to brace ourselves for politicians of almost every persuasion to demonstrate their concerns with ‘crime’ and ‘law and order’; to come up with policy suggestions that, if only they were implemented, would ‘solve’ the ‘crime problem’. I suspect that one of the buzz terms of this election cycle will be ‘youth crime’ or perhaps the apparently more euphemistic, ‘youth offending’. It may seem odd for a criminologist to say, but I would like to see a world where politicians stop talking about crime and punishment.

The way these problems are spoken about — and have been spoken about for the past 50 years or so — is all-too predictable and stale. The dominant political discourses on crime and punishment rarely pass for ‘rational assessment’, saturated as they are by moral prejudices, outrage, hatred and fear. Taking seriously the challenges of living together in a divided world seems to be beyond our contemporary political institutions.

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‘Youth crime’ is a notion to be especially wary of for several reasons. Putting my cards on the table, I detest the term and cringe every time I hear it or get asked about it. The term gets thrown around as if we all know what is being spoken about, but it is such a broad and vague term, which has little meaning.

As a biological designation, youth typically incorporates those between the ages of 15 and 24. As a cultural term, youth can include almost anyone. I am in my 40s, but I still feel somewhat ‘youthful’ – although, as I write this, I may be culturally designated as having entered ‘grumpy old man’ territory.

Crime is also an encompassing category. It includes jaywalking, public intoxication, drug use, not wearing a helmet when cycling, petty theft, burglary, robbery, assault, murder – in short, every infraction of the penal code is crime. Put the two terms together and you are basically referring to almost every crime recorded by law enforcement agencies. Good luck reducing or solving that problem in a year or two with tactics like boot camps, sentencing youth as adults, or minors as youth, or whatever other asinine strategy is proposed.

Of course, that the concept of ‘youth crime’ keeps appearing despite its amorphous nature raises a question or two, such as what exactly are we talking about, and why are we letting such a vague concept saturate the agenda? I would put it down to the subtext —and a fairly transparent one at that—for the desire to control Māori and Pasifika young people. Discussions about youth crime, then, are ultimately about colonisers and the colonised, and serving and protecting the colonisers by political regimes. Via their ‘law and order’ proposals most political parties are essentially promising not to upset the status quo, not to interfere with the ongoing project of colonisation, especially its racist and classist dimensions.

And yet, the concern with youth crime (read: the securing of white privilege) reveals anxiety amongst much of the dominant population, as if they were somehow at a disadvantage in this social order.

It should be clear by now that our major political parties (and many of the minor ones) don’t seem interested in disturbing social inequalities. If anything, they are invested in the maintenance and extension of contemporary power arrangements. I cannot imagine many political parties having the will and courage to operate otherwise in the present moment. Were they to make proposals that pursue some greater collective good, rather than pander to particular peoples’ interests, they would quickly be consigned to the scrap heap of politics. The more profound limits of our current political environment deserve far more scrutiny than they receive, limits that are often overshadowed by topics like ‘youth crime’. I do not think this is accidental and it indicates a rather sad state of affairs.

At some point, we might want to ask what politics and election years have become. What are they about? What can they be about? Can we imagine a political sphere that actually pursues, through rational and open deliberation, the greater collective good?

To return to the supposed youth crime problem, can anyone take seriously that the proposed solutions we are already seeing emerge from political parties – boot camps, harsher punishment, longer prison sentences, and so on – will foster better living conditions for all of society’s members? We know the answer to this is ‘no’. These punitive strategies are sold as interventions that will correct young people, or somehow make them ‘better’, but they are not the type of life experiences that make their way onto CVs. They do not help people in the labour market.

If we really want to reduce property crimes, we would be better off paying people living wages, supporting those who are unemployed, and those living in precarious social conditions. I think they used to call it ‘welfare’. One way or another, the public pays for ‘crime control’—and punitive criminal justice systems charge exorbitant rates. The question is whether the enacting of punitive desires, which hints at a collective investment in sadism, is worth the price tag.

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