Jarrod Gilbert: Tackling the gang problem requires a bit of give and take


Seeing the fuss about a $200 koha made to the Waikato Mongrel Mob was a terrific indication that we might collectively appreciate the need for change in our approach to crime, but we probably won’t allow it to happen.

Steep imprisonment rates, high recidivism, and the massive overrepresentation of Māori in the criminal justice system were all reasons we’ve seen a change in thinking around tackling crime in New Zealand.

There was also the costs, which were, and remain, eyewatering. But the cost alone shouldn’t perhaps daunt us. Paying to combat crime is a necessity – it was how we were spending the money that was far from ideal.

For example, a 2015 Cabinet report found that $1.4 billion a year was being spent on family and sexual violence, of which just 1.5 per cent was spent on primary prevention. In short, we were spending huge amounts of money after crime occurred, but very little on preventing it in the first place.

Neither taxpayers nor the victims – past or future – were being well served, and so we have recently moved toward talking about crime in different ways. The focus has moved to rehabilitation and prevention.

To some people, this agenda seems radical, but it was championed by an anything-but-radical Finance Minister, Bill English.

Given more of a chance, English would have been a fine prime minister. His agenda for many criminal justice matters was well ahead of the game, but his short tenure was halted by Winston Peters, who gave the tail-wags-the-dog-MMP-nod to Jacinda Ardern.

Ardern’s Government gave short shrift to English’s forward-looking social investment initiatives targeting crime, which I thought was crazy, but nevertheless, her acute sense of fairness and a desire to focus on children has seen the path enabled by English to continue. She understands as well as any politician I’ve ever met the need for a crime prevention focus – but can her Government achieve it?

The initial indications were good. The Criminal Justice Summit in 2018 and the creation of Te Uepū, the Justice Advisory Group, assisted in affirming the need for change and correctly, in my view, identified that the public was aware that the current approach, while not entirely broken, was poor in so many ways.

The National Party (with English having departed the helm) has, however, reverted to type – not necessarily National type, but opposition type. They have quickly begun beating the old drum of “tough on crime” in the same way Labour did in opposition. The same way both sides have done forever – it’s the primary reason we’re in the situation we are.

Judith Collins’ poll results suggest that the old drum – which has been enthusiastically beaten by Simon Bridges and Simeon Brown – is perhaps not working as it has done in the past. It really seems like the public is no longer convinced by the idea. Yet when we see evidence of the new type of approach to crime, the public baulks.

Which brings me back to the $200 koha given by the Human Rights commissioner to the Waikato Mongrel Mob when he attended a hui.

If we want to change folk, we have to engage them. And when we’re talking about folk we need to change, the Mongrel Mob represents the communities most in question. Not just the members, but their wives and partners, their aunties and uncles, and most importantly their kids.

The Waikato Mongrel Mob have members involved in crime – that’s a no-brainer – but they are also among the best examples of a gang attempting to change for the better. It’s in our interests to do everything we can to help them with that. If we can modify their behaviours for the better, and prevent some crime – while still policing them heavily – then the community is better off.

A $200 payment is an utterly trifling amount, and so much of the criticism was about the optics, to use Wellington speak. I’d argue those optics are actually good. They represent a tiny but important change in the way we need to operate.

Just last month, a senior public official discussed with me her idea of meeting the Waikato Mongrel Mob. I asked her what she had to lose. “You need to meet with them,” I said. “People will understand that.”

I was clearly wrong. Just going and meeting them, and treating them in the same way a government agency would treat any group, is seen as a problem. If this continues, our chances of necessary and meaningful change are doomed.

Bill English didn’t promote his crime prevention initiatives during the campaign for the 2017 election, which he eventually lost. National decided not to promote them, and I can only assume that was because they sounded too complex and unfamiliar to the usual “lock ’em up” rhetoric.

Ardern and her Government face a similar conundrum. When things get hard and a controversy erupts over even insignificant sums and matters, will they persevere or will they see the political risks as too great?

The common denominator is the public. Really, it’s on us.

– Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the director of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury.

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