Planting the evidence, Steven Price

Justice With Both Eyes Open 
Marc Alexander
Hazard Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877270601

The cover of Marc Alexander’s new book exploring the criminal justice system features a laudatory remark taken from criminologist Greg Newbold’s foreword. “Refreshingly free of the mindless ideological polemic that has driven a great deal of public policy in recent years,” it says warmly. When you read the whole foreword, though, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Newbold found the task rather like writing a tactful reference for a mediocre student. Alexander is “passionate about his subject”. His book is “ambitious”. He has “discovered some interesting research to support his points of view.” Some of his positions are “controversial”. Newbold disagrees with some of the conclusions but applauds “the prodigious amount of work that he has put into developing them.” Would you hire this book?

In fact, Newbold feels the need to spend half the foreword pointing out that public perceptions of the level of crime, and particularly violent crime, are vastly overstated, partly because of the “inflated claims of some lobby groups”. (Might this include the Sensible Sentencing Trust, for whom Marc Alexander used to be a spokesman, and which receives a portion of the proceeds from the sale of his book?)

Alexander feels no such need to put crime in context. Time and again, he writes that crime and violence are rising in New Zealand. He also claims that our crime rates are high internationally. Nowhere does he mention that our overall reported crime level has generally been dropping off since the mid-1990s. Nowhere does he mention that international comparisons are fraught and usually fall into the trap of overcounting New Zealand crime because of the way our statistics are recorded. Nowhere does he mention a 2002 Ministry of Justice study comparing violent crime rates, which generally finds New Zealand significantly safer than Australia, England and Wales, Canada and the United States. Despite the piles of evidence that Alexander has assembled in this book, he has somehow overlooked much research that’s inconsistent with his views.

Alexander’s thesis is that bad people are choosing to commit more crimes, victims are suffering, rehabilitation and other PC panaceas like welfare and education aren’t working, and we as a community need to stop tolerating it and take some action. That action, he thinks, should include locking more people up, and for longer; putting more police on the streets; supportive “interventions” for at-risk families; more cooperation between state agencies; and holding parents and guardians financially liable for the crimes of their children.

There’s much more. For convenience, Alexander sets out 52 recommendations in his final chapter. Curiously, these summarise only a fraction of the recommendations he makes in his book. More curiously, the summary includes recommendations that he hasn’t discussed earlier. More curiously still, those recommendations (and the book) do not include some elements of his draft law and order policy for United Future, such as his voluntary chemical castration plan for sex offenders.

Footnotes (478 of them), five appendices, and reference to Alexander’s MA in political science lend the book a scholarly air, but if Alexander actually submitted it as an academic work, it would struggle to pass. He cites newspaper articles instead of original sources. Some of the information is out of date. Some is flat-out wrong. (You can’t be charged with murder or manslaughter if you kill someone with a car?) He takes chunks of text from other people without always putting them in quotes. He makes basic errors such as mis-titling the “Principal court judge” and referring to the non-existent “Dr John Mill”. (It’s John Miller. No doctorate.) None of this excites great confidence in the rigour of Alexander’s analysis.

Worse: I did a random sample of a few of his footnotes, and he sometimes exaggerates the research he cites. For instance, he says early exposure to television violence produces, as a “direct result”, an increased risk of aggressive and violent adult behaviours, citing an academic study he says proves this. In fact, the study’s authors wrote that their research didn’t provide a strong test of causation, the effects they found were “modest”, and many other factors were relevant, such as the class, intelligence and aggressiveness of the parents.

Really, this is less of a book than a driftnet full of information about the justice system. It’s as if Alexander isn’t quite sure what to make of the research he’s uncovered, so he just describes it, perhaps adding a comment or two, as he plucks it out of the net. Here’s a study I found! Here’s a description of the functions of a government agency! Look – some statistics! And now an anecdote! A couple of newspaper reports! Despite some rather desperate attempts to connect the book’s disparate elements, it trucks along from topic to topic, often without a coherent underlying argument or structure. Why, for instance, does the chapter on prisons suddenly switch gears and start talking about drug policy outside prisons? And why is the discussion on whether imprisoning people lowers crime rates not in the prison chapter?

More importantly, why does Alexander spend so little time looking at elements of the criminal justice system you’d expect to be at the heart of the book: parole, sentencing practices and policing? “Bail” isn’t even in the index.

Still, Newbold is right: lots of Alexander’s research is interesting. He writes about the way inmates experience time passing. The therapeutic value of hugging. The uses of environmental design to minimise crime. Our alarming recidivism statistics. Our internationally high prison population. The fact that serious violent offenders are now eligible for parole after only a third of their sentence. He predicted the problems with the police’s 111 system. He describes some valiant social programmes struggling to make a difference.

Alexander is genuinely grappling with criminal justice issues and, in particular, the causes of crime. He keeps to a minimum the demagoguery aimed at soft judges, inept parole decisions and wussy politicians.

However, his thoughtful analysis of the causes of crime – including gambling, diet, parenting, sex abuse and unemployment – sits oddly alongside many of his table-thumping, lock-’em-up recommendations. And a lot of his other solutions – engaging the public, targeting dysfunctional families, encouraging inter-agency cooperation, subsidising security – sound nice, but strike me as (a) expensive, (b) impossible to implement, and sometimes (c) almost meaningless. “Problems must be identified, needs analysed and resources accessed,” he writes, “in order to achieve informed strategic decisions on crime prevention.”

I hoped this book would make me think. Instead, it merely made me scratch my head.


Steven Price is a media law lecturer and freelance journalist in Wellington.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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