Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Policy A Day: Targeting Gangs

In the lead-up to the election, we are going to examine one policy per (working) day. We've selected policies to be as balanced as possible across a range of policy areas and across the political parties. The idea is to explain the background, analyse the policy to investigate the pros and cons, and give a verdict on the policy at the end. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. Also, I say 'we' because this series will feature some guest posts from other young people, to share their thoughts and ideas as well. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is by Camille Wrightson.

Law and order policies are easy pickings for politicians. We hear the “get tough on crime” rhetoric most elections, because the public loves it and parties come off as authoritative and austere. Right-wing parties generally take the "hard line" approach to crime, and this election is no exception: ACT and Conservative have flagship policies regarding tougher sentences for criminals. National has taken an interesting approach with its justice policies this year. Their general law and order policies are definitely on the tougher side, but their higher profile gang policy, despite the "getting tough on gangs" slogan, has, partly, a more measured approach.

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, some significant practical and rights-based issues with the policy. National does have to play to the more extreme of its supporters, including those who commented many times over that a bullet would be an easier way of dealing with gang members.

Police and Corrections Minister Anne Tolley announced the policy last month, which includes four big initiatives:

1. A multi-agency Gang Intelligence Centre led by the Police and based at their national headquarters. The agencies involved would be Police, Corrections, Justice, MSD, Education, Health, Te Puni Kokiri, Housing NZ, Inland Revenue, and Customs;

2. Start at Home, a work programme designed to encourage reintegration and rehabilitation. Corrections services will be targeted at gang members, including violence and addiction services and support, alongside increased effort towards education, employment, and housing;

3. Two Dedicated Enforcement Taskforces: the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Border Protection Taskforce which targets drug-trafficking, including putting drug-dogs at domestic airports, and the Criminal Asset Confiscation Taskforce which would strengthen asset recovery efforts, prevent the financing of crime and target profits received from crime;

4. Strengthening legislation by amending the Sentencing Act to include 24-hour GPS monitoring of high-risk gang affiliates following release from a prison sentence of less than 2 years, to stop them associating with gang members. It would also stop serious gang offenders from buying weapons, and would penalise those who knowingly supply those weapons.

The funding for this policy has been specified as $1.6 million over two years.

Gangs, for generally good reason, have a pretty bad reputation. The statistics provided by the Minister include that while gang members account for 0.1% of the population (approx. 4000 members), they are responsible for:
· 25% of homicide-related charges
· 34% of class A/B drug offences
· 36% of kidnapping and abduction offences
· 25% of robbery/aggravated robbery offences
· 26% of grievous assault offences
She went on to say that these gang members average 53 offences in their lifetime.

There has been some interesting coverage of gang life in New Zealand recently, including the discussion about whether it was fair that a father wasn’t allowed to chaperone at his son’s camp because he was an active gang member, and the story of the Mumzys group of gang wives in Porirua. Articles like this are slowly opening up the gang world to the public, showing that gangs are not just hotbeds of crime – they are also collections of whanau. In the past, Parliament has largely treated gangs as the former, which may explain why previous efforts to control gangs through legislation have had mixed results.

Analysis of the Policy
The response to the multi-agency intelligence centre have been widely welcomed, including by Police Commissioner Mike Bush, Dr Jarrod Gilbert, NZ’s foremost academic on gangs, and the Herald editor. A broader approach to the problem of gangs has been desired for a long time, and using so many different agencies looks like a really positive step. It has been great to hear Minister Tolley saying things like “It is just an acceptance that you are never going to arrest your way out of the gang culture” and that “law and order is only part of the answer”.

Nevertheless, there are some serious issues with the policy.

It is well-documented that crackdown measures on gangs don’t often work that well. Overseas and local research, including by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington DC, has demonstrated that if legislation further stigmatises gangs, this leads to increased internal cohesion and hostility towards authority, rather than the deterrence that was intended. Unison and defiance of gang-members is precisely what the legislation wants to stop, but if it is too heavy-handed it might actually cause that. The GPS monitoring could have this effect. Dr Gilbert has said that under legislation like this “they feel like they’re being attacked and so they create their own value systems to rebel against that. It creates perverse outcomes.”

There are human rights concerns with the GPS tracking proposal as well. The biggest concern is a breach of section 17 of the Bill of Rights Act – freedom of association. Practical issues also arise – if you are from a small town, and/or your only circle of friends/family/whanau is gang-connected, it is highly unlikely or even desirable that you will avoid those people after your release from prison. Minister Tolley has said that currently there has been no Ministry of Justice vetting regarding implications on human rights with this policy. While presumably the legislation would be checked by the Attorney-General for any breaches as it made its way through the legislative process, the Government hasn’t had a particularly good track record of listening to the AG’s concerns in recent years.

Dr Gilbert has accused the Government of overstating the problem. He has raised concerns with the statistics the Minister used, suggesting that the figure that 28% of inmates are gang members also includes gang associates. This would mean that not just active, patched members were included, but also anyone who has any connection to anyone in a gang. This potentially means we’re dealing with a pool of 60 000 people as opposed to 4000.

Also, the initiatives targeting the drug trade rely on an assumption that gangs are responsible for the majority of drug trafficking. This is not necessarily the case, as apprehension data recorded by the police have gang affiliates making up between just 7 and 12% of apprehensions depending on the type of drug. A focus on gangs while trying to address drug trafficking may well mean that, in the words of Dr Gilbert, “the drug dealers who aren’t in gangs, the vast majority of drug dealers, tend to go under the radar. And that is a problem, it’s a problem for all of us.”

While the multi-faceted approach is a great idea, it’s going to need sufficient funding for it to work. $1.6 million over two years is a drop in the bucket, and isn’t a particularly good omen.

However by far the biggest issue with this policy, and with most anti-gang policies, is that it doesn’t address the root issue. Gangs thrive in communities that have issues with poverty, unemployment and poor education. As long as Kiwis struggle with these issues, we will always have gangs. If the Government is unwilling to seriously address them, then any legislation attacking gangs is bound to fail. The multi-agency approach is a great start, but policy-makers need to look even broader if they want to make a change regarding the underlying causes of gang activity.

Gangs are enabled by social problems as well as by freedoms (of association, of expression) that we have granted all citizens under the Bill of Rights Act. Dr Gilbert warns that “lawmakers must be mindful of chipping away at the latter blindly or due to an inability or unwillingness to tackle the former”.

It would be interesting to know if Minister Tolley has had discussions with leaders in gang communities to better understand their problems and how best to fix them, as Robert Muldoon was well known to do. Those who speak to the media have a very clear message: Denis O’Reilly, lifelong Black Power member, has said that the idea of the Gang Intelligence Centre is a “pathological construct. If we keep on focusing on the illness, we are likely to miss the drivers of wellness. Deal with whanau, not gangs”. Dennis Makalio, Mongrel Mob boss, has said that “what works is when they focus on what the problem is in New Zealand and not a gang… This is not a gang problem, it’s a New Zealand problem. The problem is, if you can’t get employment what are you going to do to feed your family?”

The multi-agency approach is a fantastic step forward in addressing the problems that gangs cause, assuming it is adequately funded. A broader, more holistic approach in this manner has been needed for a long time. Further focus on rehabilitation and reintegration is a major plus as well. The other aspects of the policy don’t bode so well, and show a desire from National to play to its more conservative supporters in election year, rather than listening to the experts or to gangs themselves. Positive change in this area is possible, but we need to consider the general social problems which enable gangs, rather than just manage the after-effects.

[Update: The article mentions that there was some confusion about the statistics - Dr. Gilbert has OIA'd the data and it shows that he was correct.]

Camille Wrightson is a left-leaning Law and Politics student at the University of Otago. She likes feminism, public policy, and making brownie-in-a-mug.

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