Opinion: Why being tough on crime won't help

Source: Re: News

Having a tough on crime approach obscures the real solutions needed to prevent violence, youth worker Aaron Hendry writes. In this piece, he shares his opinion on how harsher punishments and policing create environments for crime to continue and for gangs to grow.

A file image of a police officer with a rifle at a crime scene.

By Aaron Hendry for Re: News

Several weeks ago bullets ripped through my community in Massey, West Auckland, disturbing the peace of an otherwise quiet Autumn evening.

Shootings and violence aren’t uncommon in my hood. It seems like the Police helicopter lives in the West Auckland skies and it wasn’t long ago when Constable Matthew Hunt lost his life on our very streets.

Over the last few months fear and anxiety seem to have filled out headlines.

Politicians and media personalities have called for tougher punishments, more police and stricter sentencing.

National Leader Christopher Luxon has renewed tired blue party lines demanding a tougher stance on gangs and the creation of a Strike Force Raptor-type police unit in order to terrorise and marginalise people within gang communities.

National leader Christopher Luxon.

Auckland mayoral candidates Leo Malloy and Viv Beck have both demanded a new police station in downtown Auckland, responding to the perception and fear that the city has become unsafe.

Labour delivered an election year budget that could have made National proud, promising more police and increased investment in policing and corrections.

In the midst of all this, an important question has become obscured.

What are we actually trying to achieve? Is our goal to punish people for becoming involved in crime, or do we want to prevent crime from occurring and people being harmed in the first place?

Tough on crime - a reaction not a response

If the goal is to punish people after they become involved in crime, then we’re on the right track.

More police, harsher punishments, stricter sentencing, that’ll do it.

But, punishing people after the fact doesn’t prevent people from being victimised.

Everything we know about the sort of crime that has led media coverage over the last month is that these sorts of crimes aren’t prevented by police on the street and locking people in cages.

In fact, harsh, punitive measures inevitably result in further crime being committed.

That is because the tough on crime rhetoric is a reaction not a response.

It ignores the context behind these crimes and by failing to understand why people are becoming involved in crime in the first place, it instead does more harm to people by funnelling whānau into the justice system.

A system which is itself traumatising and ill-equipped for the task of rehabilitation or healing.

The result being that eventually the incarcerated individual comes out of prison, or lock up, or remand, and they’re back out in the world, often a greater risk to themselves and their community.

What we forget when we join those calling for the harsher punishment narrative is that none of this happens in a vacuum. There is a conveniently ignored context to all this.

Take my community for example.

Massey is on average a decile 8 on the deprivation index.

We’re a community that is experiencing extreme inequality, where some have and others do not.

A community where two people can live in a six-bedroom mansion on one street and a whānau of 14 can pack into a mouldy, cold and damp three-bedroom house on the other.

A community where people are struggling, where poverty is not uncommon, where so many of our whānau are doing it hard.

There are many within our community that do not see a space for themselves in mainstream society. Who through their struggle to survive, have been told that the Government, those in power and the community at large do not care for them.

A reality that we struggle to face is that poverty, inequality and social exclusion create the environment where some within our community feel so other, so desperate, so excluded from mainstream society, that the only hope they have is found within collectives that are out of step with the community at large.

And calls for more police and harsher punishments, while ignoring the reality that we have chosen to allow inequality and poverty to grow, is a perverse abdication of our collective responsibility for one another.

We have allowed a society to be created where it is acceptable for young people to sleep on our streets.

Where it is acceptable for parents to go to bed hungry, because without starving themselves they wouldn’t have enough to feed their kids.

Where it has become acceptable for some whānau to live in mouldy, cold and damp homes, in order to pay off the mortgage of a landlord who doesn’t want to invest in the repairs needed to make their whare liveable.

Getting smarter on crime

Poverty and extreme inequality are political choices we make every day. And yet, they also are not fixed realities.

It is possible to eradicate poverty.

It is possible to decide that we care more about our people, than we do about the status quo.

And if we want to prevent crime within our communities, if we want to safeguard our young people from seeing gangs as the only hope they have for survival, then we must make a choice to do away with the trite and cliché tough on crime rhetoric.

Getting smart on crime means we invest in our communities, we eradicate poverty, we reduce inequality, we ensure all our whānau have hope and a stake in our collective future, we make the decision to stop accepting the unacceptable reality of extreme inequality and poverty in our midst.

If we want to reduce crime and make our community safer, we can – and must - make different choices.

Aaron Hendry works as a youth housing Service Leader at Lifewise, an Auckland-based community social development organisation. He also writes about religion and social justice for blog and advocacy group When Lambs Are Silent.

First published on renews.co.nz. Re: makes videos, articles and podcasts that cover the important issues that matter to young New Zealanders. You can see more stories on their website.