Gangs and a tough-on-crime rhetoric are once again front and centre with election policies specifically targeting patched communities landing thick and fast.
This has been driven by reports that gang membership is rising, violent crime is increasing and somehow this is also linked to a reduction in the prison population.
Experts spoken to by Newsroom were strongly opposed to conflating these issues, pointing out the National Gang List (which is where the figures come from) was never intended to capture the gang population; violent crime data changes depending on which data set you use; and there is no evidence that suggests the reduced prison population has created a crime wave.
And if there is, are “regular New Zealanders” more unsafe on the streets?
It doesn’t seem to actually matter.
In part two of a three-part analysis on parties’ law and order plans, we look at tough-on-crime policies as well as what’s there for victims.
Here’s what National, Act and NZ First want to do:
– Make gang membership an aggravating factor in sentencing.
– Restore the three strikes law.
– Give police greater powers to tackle gangs, including banning patches and stopping gang members gathering in public, and associating with each other.
– Stop gang members accessing guns. The Commissioner of Police will be able to issue a Firearms Prohibition Order to any gang member who has been convicted of a serious offence.
– More support for victims through increased funding for grants to support access to counselling, mental health services, or help with transport costs when attending court hearings.
– Bring in Gang Control Orders which would allow police to apply to the courts for an injunction against an individual on the National Gang List. The injunction order could then be used to prohibit behaviours including being in a particular location or associating with particular people. It could also be used to require rehabilitation attendance.
– Increase the powers of police to seize the assets of gang members found with illegal firearms.
– Use Inland Revenue’s powers to investigate gang members’ income and tax paid.
– Set performance expectations for the Gang Intelligence Centre.
– Reform the reparations system.
– Bring back the three strikes law.
– Have a separate three strikes regime for burglary offences. Criminals who commit three burglary offences would face a minimum three-year prison sentence with no parole.
– Automatically adjust police staffing budgets in line with population increases.
– Amend the Sentencing Act 2002 so judges must take into account the fact that a serious violent offence occurred against a worker during their course of work as an aggravating factor.
– Make gang membership an aggravating factor in sentencing.
– Introduce an automatic six-month minimum mandatory prison sentence for assaulting a first responder – police officer, paramedic, firefighter, or corrections officer – in the course of their duty.
– Designate gangs ‘Terrorist Entities’ under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2022.
– Establish a dedicated gang prison to minimise prison recruitment of non-gang members.
AUT lecturer Grace Gordon, who specialises in criminology, said the policies were, for the most part, fear based.
“Obviously public safety is a huge factor of what we need to be doing in our society, and I think a lot of the approaches and policies here are leaning into a punitive and fear-based approach … fear is the core focus and driving force for a lot of these policies.
“So it might, in the short term, create some level of general public safety. But in terms of long-term safety, it’s actually going to cause a lot more harm and damage, because you are furthering social divisions in our society, and isolating and excluding people from our society.”
That’s backed up by findings from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser earlier this year which found these types of approaches were unsustainable.
“While suppression approaches might provide immediate improvement on specific issues, it is unlikely to bring about any long-term behavioural changes, and may even contribute to perpetuating cycles of harm.
“Short-term suppression interventions might provide immediate outcomes, but medium- to long-term intervention and prevention strategies are required to build the society that we want in the long term,” the report said.
Politicians have repeatedly said there is rising crime and rising gang violence, but the data is notoriously unreliable.
Gordon said according to the most recent Crime and Victims Survey there had been a lift in victimisations but this was mostly because of dishonesty and fraud crimes.
“So it doesn’t seem to capture a lot of the violent crime that we’re seeing in our news.”
“There’s [also] a huge amount of concentrated victimisation. So 4 percent of the adult population experienced 56 percent of all victimisations last year.”
She said if people felt unsafe in their communities it was likely because they were being told to feel this way, rather than an actual higher likelihood of experiencing crime.
“What I would attribute that to is the state’s continued investment into a fear-based safety approach. This whole idea of increasing policing, demonising gangs and bolstering our reliance on police and punishment is actually making us collectively less safe in the long term.
“The stranger danger [concern] isn’t actually a true representation of who’s likely to be harmed and victimised.”
Both National and Labour have promised 300 more police officers this election.
Gordon said it was the same idea that there was more to fear out there.
“It may increase safety for certain populations where the police are actually a place of safety. But for a lot of communities more policing just means more people who will be apprehended and funnelled into our justice system and as a result of that, trapped in the justice system.
“So we’re actually creating a lot more harm by pushing people into our criminal punishment system.”
Denis O’Reilly, a Black Power member who often speaks on gang issues, said he wasn’t convinced many of the policies would ever get off the ground, and they were solely being used as election bait.
“When they start to get into implementing or looking at the evidence, as it were, they may be less inclined to introduce some of the things that they’re talking about.
“I reckon the cops have got as good a grip on the offending as I’ve seen. Yes, some bikers may piss you off at a funeral or whatever. But, you know, two weeks later, there’ll be a knock on the door, and their bike will be seized.
“Or this new law where you can apprehend people and have search and seizure without evidence when there’s a gang conflict has already proven to be very useful.”
Both National and Act want to bring back the three strikes legislation.
That was repealed last year because there was little evidence it had reduced serious offending. It was also found to have breached the Bill of Rights Act.
Armon Tamatea, who has worked in criminal justice for over 20 years with a focus on prisons, institutional violence and gangs, said bringing it back would not deter people from offending.
“Three strikes weren’t seen as three strikes, it was seen as two opportunities. So they saw it as two, kind of, lighter steps before they’re faced with the much harsher sentence.
“It’s screwy thinking but that’s kind of the sort of logic that’s you’re dealing with repeat recidivists. They’re much more indifferent to risk.”
He said the policies targeting gangs were naive, and not linked to how gang communities operated, or what they valued.
“A lot of people from those communities do some pretty bloody heinous things. I mean let’s acknowledge that. But I’ve certainly seen some other dimensions at play and so while gangs as a whole may not necessarily be faithful to the laws of the land, they’re certainly faithful to the laws of communities.
“The association stuff was what they were doing in the 2000s, the gang-patch stuff they tried in Whanganui … seizing assets is interesting, so if the issue is firearms, seizing assets seems to be the punishment, which makes you wonder what they’re really going for there.
“So some of these things do strike me as kind of naive in that regard, and probably not really well-informed by the gang community and how gang communities typically roll.”
Alongside extra police and a targeted gang policy, here’s what else Labour would like to do:
– Strengthen legal protections against stalking and harassment.
– Give police more powers during gang conflicts. Police powers to target gang leaders and gang convoys.
– Review the reparation system, to speed up payments for victims. Reform the Victims’ Right Act.
– Have 78 more police prosecutors.
– Establish a formal class-actions regime to help groups of victims achieve justice.
– Modernise consent law.
– Review District Court jury trials.
– Increase uptake of audio-visual technology in courts.
– Implement a mental health co-response model.
Along with Act there is a promise to better the reparations system, so victims can get what they are owed from their perpetrator more quickly.
Increased use of audio-visual technology is also on the cards, meaning victims may not necessarily need to travel to be in court.
The roll out of a co-response model for mental health calls to police has been widely backed, with the Mental Health Foundation calling it a “no-brainer”.
Unsurprisingly the Green Party and Te Pāti Māori have policy that differs from the punitive themes in most of the above ideas.
– Require regular de-escalation training for police, oppose further arming of police and the use of tactics that increase the risk of harm, and increase resourcing for Māori and Pasifika wardens.
– Extend legal aid, better resource community law centres, and make applications for protection and parenting orders free.
Te Pāti Māori
– Establish an independent Māori Justice Authority.
– Reallocate 50 percent of corrections, police and courts budgets to Māori Justice Authority.
– Abolish prisons by 2040 and replace them with community-led and community-based solutions.
– Reform the IPCA so it is subject to the OIA and required to be independently reviewed.
– Allow all prisoners to vote.
Gordon said the policies were definitely targeting the “long-term game”.
“Which is always going to be harder – people really want to find quick solutions. But you can’t find quick solutions to complex problems. So I think the policies that have been promoted by the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are trying to tackle and address the root cause of offending, which means a lot more investment upfront, and providing and investing a lot more resources into communities, but it is going to have a lot more of a collective and sustainable benefit to our safety.”
“It’s not just about hammering people in prisons but thinking about how can we work in communities, so crime becomes less of a thing. How can we best support communities so there are fewer barriers for people not just access to justice, but also education and health.”
“It’s kind of utopian, I have to admit, but if I’m being serious about it it’s recognising the complexity, and to think there’s one way of doing it … you’re going to miss a whole bunch of other stuff, which is what their behaviour might be in response to.”
Gordon said the idea of abolishing prisons was not to suggest the gates would suddenly be opened and offenders would run free.
“It’s really about investing in creating the social conditions where the sorts of harms that we see in our society are significantly minimised. So if you are doing a more preventative approach, you’re going to have less harm.
“It doesn’t ignore that harm will occur, but recognises that putting people in prison is just adding more harm.”
The Gangs report said any policies to target gangs should be informed by the communities themselves.
Part three will look at ‘the system’ policies including sentencing, remand, rehabilitation, cultural reports, and prevention.