03 August 2006

What are the limits of effective public policy?

Concerns about crime and violence have led to various proposals about controlling such problems. These are sometimes fuelled by the capabilities provided to us by scientific research and electronic technologies. So, for example, Rotorua City wishes to monitor its CBD on closed-circuit TV to spot known criminals who have been banned from the streets and to have them removed. The Children’s Commissioner wants a national database to track every child from birth to 18 (why stop at 18?). A researcher, Kaye McLaren, proposes a system that identifies – at birth – those likely to become serious criminals so that their families could get priority aid from social services. This is intended to reduce the numbers of offenders in prisons. (As you probably know, New Zealand’s prison incarceration rate is already one of the highest in the world, and growing). McLaren says: ‘The path to prison starts at conception’. But if you are poor and Maori, you are more likely to be a target for the system she proposes. I’m just wondering what the limits of effective law and public policy actually are. What do you think?


At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Liz said...

When I lived in Manchester, UK, I noted that they had CCTV in the city centre to identify criminals and later use footage in prosecution. While initially I thought that the CCTV cameras were an infringement on my own rights, I quickly came to the conclusion that I felt just a little bit safer knowing that someone was watching me - even if by camera.

Identifying potential criminals from birth, however, just feels like a negative spin on the topic from the start. Surely, we can find a way to improve services and programs to benefit all communities and reduce the number of criminals in the long-term? I don't know what the answer is, but it's a topic worth discussing at length.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Grant said...

Fair question, Liz, and I think the discussion will go on now that the PM has announced changes to sentencing etc with a view to reducing the prison population.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Sarah said...

I read the NZ Herald article (16/8/06) about the changes to sentencing and it left me wondering just how effective its going to be. I understand that the proposal includes increasing the chance of parole from 1/3 to 2/3rds (into their sentencing time) but at the same time the Judges will reduce the amount of sentencing time first imposed. How is this going to help? Surely it means that the majority of prisoners will still spend the same amount of time in prison? Perhaps my understanding is incorrect. The whole focus seems to be on putting in more effective surveillance systems, home detention, electronically monitored curfews etc but still nothing seems to done from a rehabilitation point of while ... while the prisoners are in prison. I completely understand why we need more trust in sentencing ... but aren't these systems aimed at reducing prison numbers to avoid building more prisons.... shouldn't more money and focus be put towards preventative measures first ... then rehabilation?? Just a thought!!

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Grant said...

Thanks, Sarah, and I share your concerns. I am not fully up with the play regarding the proposed legislation. But I have not seen enough reference to rehab in prisons to be confident that these proposals will do much to prevent re-offending - which is one of the big issues. At least the PM acknowledges that prison numbers are growing out of proportion in relation to crime rates - which show little sign of growth. I worry that they are too concerned with the punitive public backlash that would happen if they were to mandate prisoner rehab, education, training etc. 'Commit a crime and get free tertiary education while doing time!' Imagine the talk-back comments! Imagine Parry inmates doing my courses extramurally!

At 9:25 PM, Blogger mark said...

how about starting with the desired outcome [safer communities] and consider options through the lense of a particular set of values. For instance, we might consider we value individual freedom, and unhindered freedom of choice as the highest expression of humanity, so we reduce the number of activities which we class as criminal eg drug use, then at the sweep of a pen we have reduced crime in several ways - no longer is the manufacture and distribution of drugs as attrctive to the criminally inclined - there is not the premium attached. Who knows, the govt might even tax it, but that might be, on the basis of the same value set, an intrusion of the state into private commercial affairs. Without the premium price, users would not have to such extreme measures to obtain the money to pay for their, er, use (nearly said addiction!) Such an approach would, I suspect mean that the people who start out at the bottom of the social heap would be allowed to remain there. Could we categorise such an approach almost as an absence of social policy. To me, social policy is about having a look at the social status quo and investigating ways of changing it so that the national 'social quotient' is increased by whatever means you define it in relation to your society's values. On this basis, in principle it could be accepted that there is a role for the state in giving people with an at risk profile assistance at an early age if it means they will be less likely to contribute to unsafe communities in the future.
I think there's some twisted logic in there somewhere trying to get out. i'm not advocating drug use, just thought it might be a way to get a reaction - I'm a clean living boy really, apart from the occasional tipple of legal drugs (red wine mostly!)


At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Grant said...

I have always thought that making something illegal makes it desirable - for psychological as well economic reasons, as you suggest. If we truly do valuehuman freedom so highly, how can we justify marking people out as potential criminals on the basis of risk? That is potentially to stigmatise people as dangerous on an imprecise calculation of what they MIGHT do. Then there is the issue of the effectiveness of any social service countermeasures that are supposed to 'control' this risk or to prevent commission of crimes. Just how effective are they, especially when you are dealing with an 'at risk' child who hasn't even thought about committing a crime yet? And where is the evidence?


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