Tough on crime is a vote winner

The surest sign that it is election year is that our politicians are clambering over each other to demonstrate that they are the toughest when it comes to tackling crime.

Act New Zealand has been rattling its sabre all year and National has been ramping up its rhetoric with each passing week, leading up to a major policy announcement over the weekend at its annual conference.

And in Dunedin on Sunday the old master at this type of politics, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, gave a virtuoso performance of this well-worn tune.

Winston Peters speaks at an NZ First meeting in the Fullwood Room on Sunday. PHOTO: GREGOR...
Winston Peters speaks at an NZ First meeting in the Fullwood Room on Sunday. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
There is ample reason for politicians to do so. Back in 2019, when then National leader Simon Bridges issued that year’s iteration of his party’s crime policy, there were 6375 gang members on the police-prepared "National Gang List".

The latest iteration of the list has 7691 people on it, an alarming hike, albeit a figure which represents a decrease from 8175 ten months ago.

Add on to that the soaring rate of retail crime, most notably the number of ram-raids — something which National relishes in breaking down to a daily rate — and there seems some meat to the bone of the complaint by opposition MPs that crime is spiralling out of control and that some streets are not safe to walk down any more.

There are more police on the beat than ever before — even though National and Labour dispute how the rate of increase in police has been counted — but the streets seem ever more lawless.

The general public is irate at schools closing due to the tangi of a gang member raising safety concerns, and even in normally sleepy Dunedin there have been an alarming number of firearms incidents in recent months.

It is easy and reassuring to say that the prison door should be slammed on offenders and the key thrown away but, like most things in life, it is simply not that simple.

Getting tough on crime is one thing, but actually tackling what causes people to commit crime is quite another. And successfully rehabilitating people who have committed a crime is yet another thing.

The policy released by National on Sunday was, predictably, big on stick, but it also had an element of carrot about it. While the simplistic demand for tougher sentences and for gang membership to be an aggravating factor in criminal sentencing — which it already is — was predictable, National added a demand for better rehabilitation of offenders, including offering access to programmes while on remand was not.

It is not a bad idea, although more will be needed to offer effective help to those who are not irretrievable. The big policy to tackle that latter class of criminal is the pledge to restore Three Strikes legislation, an Act policy which National helped enact when both were last in a governing relationship.

While Three Strikes reassures the frightened, it is also a blunt instrument which has the capacity to create unfair and arbitrary results — which was why many judges and lawyers heartily disliked it and why it was repealed by Labour.

Both National and Act have also attacked how judges utilise discretion in sentencing, National promising to reduce the size of sentence discounts judges can apply.

Again, it sounds reassuring but it also has the capacity to be manifestly unjust. It is a truism of law that each case turns on its facts, and so too does every sentence.

There will be occasions when a judge gets something wrong — as there are in all fields of life.

But there are many more occasions when judge, who — unlike a headline-seeking politician, has the full evidence and any number of reports and assessments from qualified professionals to consider — imposes a sentence which appropriately measures culpability, mitigating and aggravating circumstances and the impact of a crime on victims.

National, Act, New Zealand First and others are quite correct to demand that the very worst offenders are given stiff punishment for their crimes.

But their leaders and justice spokespeople are not naïve: they know that properly addressing crime is not that simple.

Saying that you will get tough on crime is a vote winner. But having creative, effective ideas to address the wider issues is quite another.

Any party which can demonstrate that it has the latter is one well worth consideration by voters who have heard the same song for so many years.