Myths and statistics, Bernard Robertson

Crime in New Zealand
Greg Newbold
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86469 348 6

This is only the second proper survey and consideration of criminal statistics in New Zealand, the first being Crime and Deviance published in 1992 by the same author. The statistics and instances he discusses are therefore of great value, especially when they explode various myths.

Newbold produces the figures and the instances to show the undeniable truth that, despite several academic careers and lengthy judgments founded on asserting the opposite, women are treated highly favourably by the legal system. Women invariably receive lesser sentences than men on similar facts, when they are charged at all, and are at least as likely as men to be violent towards their partners. The child abuse industry is revealed as essentially anti-male. Women who kill their own children, even in the most horrific ways, are treated by the system with sympathy.

This backs up endless anecdotes from the Family Court of men and women receiving quite different treatment and even of men being treated in ways which would cause uproar and calls for the resignation of the judges concerned if the victims had been women.

Newbold also discusses drug (ab)use and suggests that legalisation of drugs would in some way help reduce the level of crime. It is hard to see how such measures would help since almost no one suggests making marijuana and hard drugs available to children. The entire enforcement apparatus would thus have to remain but would be faced with more marginal situations and greater difficulty in evidence-gathering.

Gang and organised crime is also considered, and Newbold then goes on to discuss miscarriages of justice and the causes of them; but he does not tie these subjects together. This is a pity as it is clear that some of the more effective ways of dealing with gangs would also lead to more reliable evidence in lesser cases. Unfortunately, there is a powerful political lobby in the form of criminal defence lawyers who have an interest in making the conviction of criminals difficult. This interest they pursue by either attacking any effective form of evidence as unreliable or, if that clearly won’t work, by restricting its use. Thus electronic surveillance of gangs is permitted under certain circumstances, but the use that can be made of the evidence is highly circumscribed. There are said to be instances of murder and numerous confessions of murder all on tape, which cannot be used as the offences were not related to the matters for which the warrant was obtained.

Included amongst the miscarriages of justice is the Peter Ellis case which, as Newbold says, involved some of the most incredible evidence ever heard in court in this country, only made remotely credible by the fact that the maddest evidence of all was ruled out. Unfortunately, the judgments in the recent reference to the Court of Appeal made clear that the case for Ellis was not presented in a way that enabled them to consider the matters intended to be considered on a reference.

Newbold also refers to the IRA cases in England. Again, an important point is not made, which is that these causes célèbres all occurred outside London in the areas of police forces which were simply overwhelmed by having to deal with crimes on this scale. In the Judith Ward appeal judgments, for example, it was made clear that there was no criticism of the Metropolitan, military or Ulster police involved, all of whom were of course experienced in this kind of crime. The root problem is one of competence, followed by frantic dishonest efforts to make up for the consequences of incompetence.

It is notable that the forces mainly concerned in the Ward case, the Greater Manchester Police and West Yorkshire Police, are both almost the same size as the New Zealand Police. It seems highly unlikely that the New Zealand Police would be able to produce the strength in depth required competently to deal with the range of crimes that a national police force would be expected to deal with. Nor, as Newbold notes, is there any national criminal intelligence arrangement involving police, customs, immigration and others.

The New Zealand Police appears to face issues of operational competence (to judge by the facts of many of the Bill of Rights cases) and managerial competence (INCIS, endless reorganisations) that a Commissioner appointed from within the New Zealand Police is unlikely to deal with successfully. It is also true that politicians have not helped by on at least two occasions in the last dozen years appointing clearly the wrong candidate as Commissioner.

So much of the figures and detailed consideration is useful and thought-provoking, but Newbold wanders off into examining the causes of crime and various other issues which are redolent of the criminology I was taught in the 1970s. In the UK criminology has moved on somewhat.

The Left in Britain woke up some time ago to the fact that it is the poor who are overwhelmingly the victims of crime. Newbold asserts that reporting of burglary will be high, since property is insured.  This is just not true. Many poorer people with just a few valuable possessions, chiefly the television and video, do not have insurance, as post-disaster appeals show. Increasing community policing in poorer areas invariably results in an increase in reported burglaries as people have easier access to police. It is not in Karori or Remuera that shops and bank branches close because of repeated robberies, but in South Auckland and Porirua.

Unfortunately, the parties of the Left in New Zealand appear to hold to a 70s Marxist conception that thieves and burglars are the vanguard of the revolution. With the exception of Phil Goff and George Hawkins, most ministers currently involved in the justice system appear to regard themselves as the representatives of the criminals rather than of the victims. Newbold clearly regards the fact that police concentrate on poorer people as evidence of bias and oppression, rather than as a redistributional benefit. The richer people who pay the taxes that support the police are better placed to look after themselves with insurance, private security and informal sanctions.

The deeper the philosophy, the more troublesome the book becomes. Newbold asserts cultural relativism and also that cultures differ widely in what they criminalise. This seems highly dubious. I strongly suspect that all pre-industrial cultures penalise much the same things, but different things from post-industrial cultures, which is hardly surprising.

Newbold also gives us a quick history of sociology which should be enough to convince one of that discipline’s lack of academic credibility.  Like psychologists, sociologists are still struggling to expound a general theory of crime, let alone human behaviour. The differences between sociologists, or schools of sociology, are as profound as the differences between Galileo and the Church, but as they consist largely of unverifiable assertions, are incapable of being resolved by rational analysis.

Meanwhile, there is another discipline – micro-economics – that offers a general theory of human behaviour (in fact the only general theory of human behaviour), but the only thing that sociologists and psychologists are agreed on is that they don’t like micro-economics and micro-economists. Rather than sensibly critique the proposition that people act rationally to maximise their values (subject to constraints), psychologists and sociologists do not even attempt to understand micro-economics before heaping abuse on its practitioners and peddling misinformation to their students.

On the facts and observations derived from them, then, this book is useful and interesting. On philosophy and theory it flounders. But it has to be said that it is the best text on crime in New Zealand that we have got.


Bernard Robertson is Editor of the New Zealand Law Journal.


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