Nonsense and Leftist Sensibility

It is a truth universally acknowledged by the Left that a young man, possessed of relative depravation, must be in want of other people’s stuff.

The existence of poverty, or at least inequality, must, according to this model, be a primary cause of criminal behaviour.

The key observation that gives rise to this view of criminal behaviour is that, in any given society, criminality and relative poverty are strongly correlated.  There is no good evidence, however, that there is a direct causal relationship between the two.

If one believed that there existed a direct causal relationship between relative poverty and crime, one would predict that the global financial crisis, which increased both absolute and relative poverty, would have increased crime rates.  But it didn’t.  Crime rates in New Zealand, the US and Australia, to use three examples close to hand, continued to track downwards despite increased “inequality” and higher unemployment rates.

An bureaucrat acquaintance remarked to me recently that it was clear that countries with comprehensive welfare systems had lower crime rates and that the solution to crime in New Zealand, therefore, was perfectly obvious.  One of the reasons I so wholeheartedly support ongoing reduction in the size of central government is that I am sick to death of hearing officials advocate the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars based on analysis so shallow I couldn’t float my rubber duck in it.

How many countries in the world really can be said to have comprehensive welfare systems?  Perhaps a dozen if you took a generous interpretation of what constitutes ‘comprehensive’.  Too small a sample size to really draw meaningful conclusions.  But even were one to accept that Scandinavia and a few other Western European countries represented a meaningful sample, there are at least two important reasons to distrust any conclusion that their welfare systems are responsible for their low crime rates.

For a start, in many European welfare states, you cannot simply leave school and start collecting welfare.  Before sucking at the teat of the taxpayer, you are expected to have actually spent some time paying tax.  In most, the period of time one can continue to receive welfare is more strictly limited than it is in New Zealand.  As such, many of those who, in New Zealand, pursue careers as welfare recipients while moonlighting as criminals would wither never have qualified for welfare in the first place, or would have been kicked off after a couple of years.

Secondly, most welfare states tend to be fairly ethnically homogenous, and, even in non-welfare states, ethnic homogeneity correlates positively with low crime.

Even if social welfare does reduce crime in the short run, which is possible, it’s still not a good solution for at  least two further reasons.

First, it’s prohibitively expensive.  And since welfare dependency is heritable, it gets more expensive the longer it goes on.  Prison is a much more cost effective approach to crime reduction.

More importantly, because welfare dependancy is heritable, the inevitable increase in the ‘underclass’ population will cause crime to go up in the long run, even if welfare payments are slightly reducing the proportion of those members of the underclass who do resort to crime.

Workman strikes out

Kim Workman, Director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, has told the Herald that “parole lessen[s] the chances of reoffending”, and that the three strikes law will increase recidivism. This is bollocks.

First, parole is still available on the first strike. This means that those who lose their parole privileges are those who have already been imprisoned once, been paroled and have then reoffended. This cohort have therefore demonstrated that they are not persuaded by parole to mend their ways.

Secondly, in terms of the impact of reoffending on society, Workman ignores the fact that recidivism is measured from the time of release. As such, a 50 per cent rate of reoffending following parole is much worse than a 50 per cent rate of reoffending following release two or three years later. Release at the end of the sentence means that society has benefitted from additional years of non-offending; this is not reflected in the statistics.

Another point that Workman ignores is that, in situations in which the three strikes law is not in force, there has to be good reason for prisoners not to be paroled – ie that the prisoner represents a risk to society because they have a high risk of reoffending. That being the case, a much higher reoffending rate among those not paroled is to be expected. Indeed, if that weren’t the case, it would be a sign that something was seriously wrong with the parole system.

Workman and others have criticised the three strikes legislation for impinging on judges’ disrection. This is clearly true, but it has been demonstrated that criminals consider both the likelihood and the severity of punishment in their decision on whether or not to offend. As such, making it clear to recidivist offenders that, if caught, they cannot hope to benefit from a lenient judge is all for the better, in my view.

It is a shame, given that Workman persists in ignoring quality research on the subject, that we can’t simply declare his three strikes spent.