Dark places

 

I was member on a panel a few months back to discuss the theme of ‘dark environments’. The panel was run by the Stout Centre for New Zealand studies and was part of their ‘Stranger than Fiction’ series. Each panel featured members from very different disciplines, and the idea was to see how different scholars made sense of various themes.

I figured I got my invite for the ’dark environments’ panel because I’m a ‘green’ criminologist who studies environmental harm. Semantics and all that. But it got me thinking about our discipline and how the concept of dark environments is meaningful to criminology in a bunch of different ways, but also how it serves as a useful reminder about what it is that we are charged with doing.

We study dark environments all the time: city streets where the lights go out; night-time economies and the illicit drug cultures that thrive there; silenced stories of sexual violence; redacted and archived abuses by the state; shady deals between traders at the borders; concrete fortresses at the edges of our cities and towns. One could go on.

The concept of dark environments is important in a particular way to green criminologists because so much of the harm our environment suffers is ‘in the dark’: unacknowledged, hidden, ignored. So much of it also lies ahead – at least, the evidence of it does. Part of our job involves telling stories about the dark, dystopian places of death, disease and destruction that we see coming.

It also seems that criminology is sometimes in a dark environment itself – unacknowledged, hidden and ignored. At least it seems so in New Zealand, at the moment. Take our justice sector, for example. Officials prefers to work with scientists who write reports filled with quantitative ‘evidence’ and risk factor calculations. Stock standard criminological theories like strain, subcultures and social disorganisation barely cop a mention in said reports. The Minister’s ‘expert panel’ tasked with figuring out how to slow down New Zealand’s epic incarceration rate hasn’t got a single one of my department colleagues on it. Odd, given that  a member of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, a lobby group with expertise in rustling up public fear about rising crime, has a seat.

I shouldn’t lament. The rest of the panel have been chosen wisely.

In any case, I am reminded of what our jobs are as criminologists by Michalowski (2016). He says we shouldn’t be bothered with ‘the crime problem’ but with the problem of crime. Our jobs are to tell uncomfortable truths about systems of power, and to call them out for their architecture of dark environments where people are left to struggle. To go into battle over meanings and to question why this social injury is the subject of social control when that one is not.

And, as Matheison (2005) makes clear, none of this work is possible from inside the halls of power. He writes:

“…it is of vital importance to raise anew research as seen from below, taking as our point of departure the interests of those out of power rather than those in power, those who are repressed rather than those who repress, those who are governed rather than those who govern, those who lack channels of communication to and influence over decision-making bodies and institutions rather than of those who have such channels and, in fact, are these bodies and institutions” (Matheison, 2005, p.78).

Where would criminology be without such critical inquiry? Perhaps the darkest place of them all – irrelevancy.

References

Mathiesen, T.  (2005). Silently Silenced : Essays on the Creation of Acquiescence in Modern Society, Waterside Press.

Michalowski, R. J. (2016). What is crime? Critical Criminology, 24(2), 181-199.

 

Myths Don’t Do Us Justice

Day two of the criminal justice summit. Kelvin Davis takes the stage to talk about Corrections’ plan to reduce prison numbers. He opens by saying we have the second highest incarceration rate in the world. He is wrong: years ago, we were second in the OECD behind the United States, but we are fifth now, and 60th of 222 countries worldwide. The person at the head of our prison system should know better.

The floor is opened for audience participation. A young man on parole introduces himself with a pepeha in te reo Māori. He was on remand in prison for 18 months, he says, and his 20-year-old cousin and co-defendant hanged himself in his cell. They were imprisoned together but separated, so he could not say goodbye. He reads a poem about the “concrete cage that seems to be my home”.

Then a woman describes someone trying to kill her, fracturing her skull and “smashing my body to pieces”. She learned her 3-year-old had been murdered in the next room. As she speaks, it should have been her daughter’s 25th birthday. “Happy birthday, Brittany,” she says.

I listen from the edge of the open-plan conference room in Porirua with 700 other people. I am a criminologist and my mind races to make sense of these haunting stories. I dwell on the links between them, how they feel woven together, victimisation inside prison and out. I am planning a lecture on reform for the Victoria University course I teach on prisons in New Zealand. I wonder: what can we learn from these stories about the failures of our social order and how we might better prevent harm to our people? Continue reading Myths Don’t Do Us Justice

Who Are the Victims?

Kim Workman

When Verna McFelin founded Pillars over 25 years ago, no one recognised that the children of prisoners were victims of crime – ten times more likely to end up in prison, than the children of non-prisoners. Social services made no special provision for the children, who today number around 23,000. Verna changed that conversation through her advocacy for the rights of children, and developing best practice to prevent inter-generational offending.

…Last week, 700 people met to discuss criminal justice reform. Public servants, criminal justice professionals, gang members, victims, ex-prisoners, police and corrections officials, academics and politicians. The discussions were diverse, and covered a range of perspectives. But when Jayne Crothall whose daughter was murdered in 1993 took the floor it became instant headlines. It was a heart-rending story of brutality. In her view, victims had been ‘frozen out’ of the Summit. The media made headlines of her concerns, but in doing so failed to inform the public that three of the Justice Minister’s Justice Advisory Group had a special expertise in victims’ interests, that a special session on victim’s issues had been facilitated by the Chief Victim’s Adviser Dr Kim McGregor at the Summit, and that two teenagers had testified about the impact of domestic violence on their mother. In addition, every prisoner who spoke, described horrendous physical and sexual abuse suffered as children.

When Jayne’s comments were reinforced by National’s Justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell, news release, who claimed that “Andrew Little’s attitude showed he was firmly on the side of offenders and didn’t want to know about victims of crime,” it was game over. As they say in the media, ‘what bleeds, leads”. There was no mention in the media that Jayne had met with her daughter’s murderer to help him through his healing journey. That part of the story didn’t fit their purpose.

I don’t blame Mark Mitchell for playing the ‘victims’ vs ‘offenders’ game – It is a political tactic that has served successive governments over the last thirty years, it is a critical part of the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric – but it needs to stop. Continue reading Who Are the Victims?

Stigma and Sex Work

Dr Lynzi Armstrong

Imagine you decide to start a business. You have an exciting idea and great people to collaborate with. You finish your business plan and are ready to embark on your new challenge. But when you go to the bank and try to open a business account you are refused. You have no history of debt, no criminal convictions and your planned business is completely legal. Sounds outrageous, right? But this is precisely what several sex workers in New Zealand have described experiencing in recent weeks.

Such reports are cause to reflect on where we currently stand with regards sex workers’ rights in this country. New Zealand’s decriminalised framework is widely lauded as world leading in prioritising the rights of sex workers, but incidents like this serve as a reminder that there is still work left to do.

These are not isolated incidents. And such incidents are not unique to New Zealand. Discrimination against sex workers is rampant around the world. Continue reading Stigma and Sex Work

It’s not OK to taser animals

When I was four, I had a pet goat called Skipper. It wasn’t most the most creative assignment of names. Skipper skipped around a lot. I also had a ewe called Mary (who, incidentally, had a lamb).

Last week, New Zealand Police released a video of an officer using his taser on a goat back in 2016. The officer is seen tasering the goat, which he later described as ‘stressed and uncooperative’, 13 times. The goat is seen in severe distress. Turns out that the police have used their weapons to subdue quite a few goats in recent years. Chickens and cats too.

How it that this kind of action toward an animal is considered plausible, and for such a minor offence like ‘getting in our way’? Remember when animals played with us and comforted us, and forgave us for giving them unimaginative names? Animals have taught all of us valuable lessons about empathy and responsibility, whether they lived with us, were in our storybooks or were not real animals at all but stuffed ones sitting on our bed. They were our teachers. Animals are known to help in rehabilitating offenders for these very reasons.

My postgraduate class and I have been discussing how our society is not just anthropogenic but actively speciesist. How as adults we shuffle our childhood animal mentors into categories like stock, wildlife or pest, based on how useful they are to our wellbeing. Continue reading It’s not OK to taser animals

NZ Criminology

The Palgrave Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Criminology, Crime and Justice, edited by Antje Deckert and Rick Sarre, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. ISBN: 978-3-319-55747-2.

The Palgrave Handbook is a noteworthy contribution to the Australasian Criminology landscape. Developed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology, this 916 page collection features 56 chapters from 78 writers. With 22 New Zealand-based researchers on show, it offers a useful opportunity to examine our crime and justice environment. This review focuses particularly, then, on the chapters produced by NZ researchers.

Fifty years ago, the book ‘Crime in New Zealand’ mapped out the crime problems of the day. It covered issues such as abortion, homosexual sex, liquor laws, ‘ship girls’ and homicide (Department of Justice, 1968). This impactful volume also clung tightly to the notion of crime as violation of law – as one reviewer noted it ‘assume[d] that the present definitions of criminal conduct are correct and that the present processes for dealing with offenders are proper. Only perhaps they should work a little better’ (Glen, 1969: p103). It recorded that Māori (then a tenth of the population) made up a third of the prison population, but decreed that there was no official discrimination within the system.

Thankfully, half a century makes quite a difference. Continue reading NZ Criminology

Walking the Road to American Mass Imprisonment

Creative commons, bruce berrien

Let me describe a photo from my childhood. I am 12 years-old, a student at South Wellington Intermediate in Newtown. I look out from under a Chicago Bulls cap pulled low to the eyes, and wear a matching Chicago Bulls t-shirt, sleeves falling loosely below the elbows. One hand is in the pocket of big jeans that sag a little at the back. I had never been to America. Don’t think I had ever met an American face-to-face. Yet I draped American symbols across my young body. We all wore NBA Starter Caps and jeans that sagged a little. Around the time the photo was taken, a survey of New Zealand school students found the most popular celebrity was not a local but the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.

At 24, I travelled to the United States to study on exchange at the University of California Berkeley. There was no culture shock. The clothes and the music, the accent and the slang words were already familiar. I understood obscure references to old TV shows because I watched the same ones growing-up. I took a sociology course on racial inequality and read about mass imprisonment for the first time – and was struck by the parallels to New Zealand. I found African-Americans were 13 percent of the general population but 40 percent of all prisoners, similar proportions to Māori. I learned there was a likeness in the timing of prison growth, with prison numbers in both countries relatively stable in the decades after World War II, before exploding in the wake of neoliberal restructuring, largely in the communities worst impacted by welfare cutbacks and declining working-class employment.

I have been studying prisons in New Zealand and America ever since. Continue reading Walking the Road to American Mass Imprisonment

Tough on Crime or Smart on Crime – The End of An Era?

Kim Workman

Talking about law and order is something of a hazardous occupation, especially within a year either side of a general election.  The gloves come off.

Earlier this week, the following blog was posted on David Farrer’s Kiwiblog site:

“Kim Workman has six children from two marriages. Doubtless he has many grandchildren.

I want the photographs of Kim Workman’s grandchildren supplied to every paroled violent offender, along with their names, home addresses and where they go to school.

It is just and fair for the Workman family to share in the fruits of Kim’s lifework along with the rest of NZ society”. Oob, Kiwiblog 11 June 2018

I responded just as viciously:

“For the record, ten grandchildren, and three great grandchildren” Kim Workman, Kiwiblog 11 June 2018

Back came a response:

“Kim: but you haven’t given their names and addresses…or even your own, so those “good people” you say the prisons are full of can come calling when they get out…” David Garrett

The last comment came as something of a surprise.  David Garrett is the legal adviser to the Sensible Sentencing Trust.  That he would promote the violation of my mokopuna seemed out of sync with Sensible Sentencing’s concern to reduce victimisation.

In a typical law and order debate, political parties increasingly promote policies which appeal to our ‘gut instincts’ i.e. they feel and sound right, but may not be supported by evidence.   Since 1987 New Zealand general elections have relied increasingly on law and order policies which attract that kind of reasoning.  Here, I want to discuss some of the key messages that political parties have promoted at elections over the last thirty years, whether those political messages are evidence-based, and whether they will reduce crime. Finally, I want to consider what happens when a political party proposes a new way of doing things, and its likelihood of success.

You can read the full 20 page piece by Kim Workman here. This paper was first presented at the Wellington Combined Probus Club, Miramar, Wellington, 14 June 2018. Kim Workman is an Adjunct Research Associate at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.

Legalising cannabis

Creative Commons, Jurassic Blueberries

I started 2018 with an unmistakable sense of optimism – after years of procrastinating and avoiding the evidence, the Government was going to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis by 2020. Could this be the beginning of an exciting new era of drug policy and drug law reform? Where policy was evidence based, where the harms from drug use could be effectively addressed, and where the damage from criminalisation could be stopped?

Imagine my despondency at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that she will not yet commit to legalising cannabis, even if the public vote for it in the referendum. I feel cheated. I am also concerned that the referendum is going to be brought forward to next year, to avoid it affecting the election campaign in 2020, with no hint of the necessary public information campaign to properly support the referendum.

My biggest fear is that the whole thing will end up being a rushed, misinformed, ill-thought-through debacle, and we will have missed a really important chance to make a difference; to respond to drug use and drug users differently and more effectively; to stop the harms related to underground markets and criminalisation.  Prohibition of drugs has not stopped people using or having problems with them.

Here’s what I hope, though. Continue reading Legalising cannabis

Three Strikes – Prison Policy by Baseball Slogan

Liam Martin

Labour are currently considering a repeal of three strikes laws. Garth McVicar and National are up in arms. No surprises there, they have been trading on misinformed slogans like three strikes for years. This particular slogan was imported, a symbol of our mindless mimicking of American prison policy. The importers did not even think about it long enough to change the name – a baseball metaphor that doesn’t make sense in New Zealand.

Three strikes replaces thoughtful decision-making with blind punitiveness. When a person is convicted of a third ‘strikeable’ offence, the sentencing judge is forced to impose the maximum prison term no matter the circumstances. Without three strikes, they could still hand down the same sentence, but would only do so if careful review of evidence showed it warranted. Three strikes simply forces the maximum regardless of what makes sense in a particular case.

The first New Zealander to be convicted of a third strike was Raven Campbell. He got a seven-year sentence for pinching the bottom of a female guard at Waikeria, where he was already imprisoned. I do not want to excuse his actions. Too many women know what it is like to experience this kind of sexual harassment and assault. Yet any rational review of the case would show the sentence to be a travesty. The judge explicitly said it was unreasonable, but was forced to impose it anyway. Informed decision-making was trumped by the blind logic of a baseball slogan. Continue reading Three Strikes – Prison Policy by Baseball Slogan

Prohibition and Blame

By Koń, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

New Zealand was poised for drug reform in 2007, but reform never came. Why do we still adhere to drug prohibition, which will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in human history?

‘Drug’ Prohibition is an archaic system of control conceived in the 1950s that’s had a devastating global impact upon individuals, families, communities and countries.

Back in the 1950s offensive ideas and practices towards indigenous people, people of colour, women, homosexuals, people with mental illness or learning disabilities were sadly not uncommon. Indeed, abuse was legitimised and normalised at a structural, cultural and interpersonal level. Now almost 70 years later, such bigotry has successfully been exposed and challenged, and such attitudes are for the most part no longer socially acceptable or state approved.

By contrast, the oppressive attitudes in the 1950s directed towards people who used ‘drugs’ became enshrined in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and little has changed since. We have been duped into using state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and sugar) within our daily routines and rituals and to embrace them as ‘non-drugs’. These hidden drugs have monopolised and saturated the market, while all substances banned by the government (that we are encouraged to call ‘drugs’) are demonised, presented as unquestionably dangerous.

This sharp distinction between state-approved and state-banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological foundation to support it. Continue reading Prohibition and Blame

Social Investment and Māori in Youth Court

Sarah Monod de Froideville

Why are young Māori over-represented in New Zealand’s youth justice system? Maybe we could start by asking them. 

The first Youth Justice Indicators Summary Report, recently released by the Ministry of Justice, shows that young Māori (and Pasifika) increasingly make up the greatest proportion of young people who appear in Youth Court.

We’ve known for a while that young Māori are over-represented in New Zealand’s youth justice system. What we don’t know is why.

Some say young Māori offend more as they are suffering trauma from the intergenerational effects of colonisation. Others say parental incarceration is to blame, as it robs Māori children of their family stability and prison becomes understood as somewhere that Māori go to for a time.

There are also those who argue that the problem is not with Māori but with the criminal justice system. That the over-representation of Māori in our youth system and in our adult jails is a result of institutional bias, i.e. racist cops, prejudiced judges and practices that have a bigger impact on Māori when compared with non-Māori.

We know that there is more than a grain of truth to each of these theories, but we don’t yet have enough research to confirm or refute their claims. So, they are routinely dismissed as radical ideas thrown around by disgruntled Māori and floaty academic types.

But what we also know is that if the coalition government holds onto Bill English’s social investment vision the youth court trends are only going to get worse. Continue reading Social Investment and Māori in Youth Court

Could ‘legalising’ drugs benefit the privileged and penalise the poor?

It is widely accepted among most drug policy experts that drug prohibition has caused more damage than the actual drugs the government is supposedly protecting us from.

Reform is long overdue. However, we need to think critically and carefully before lurching towards an alternative model.

After decades of frustration from the arbitrary criminalisation of some drugs, while other more dangerous legal substances (alcohol, pharmaceuticals, caffeine and tobacco) have gone under the drug radar, reform is imminent and overdue. ‘Drug Regulation’ is the popular rally call, but what does it mean?

Continue reading Could ‘legalising’ drugs benefit the privileged and penalise the poor?

Solving the Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic

Last week, the NZ Parliament debated an amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act which would increase penalties for supplying new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabis from two years’ prison time to eight.

The amendment comes in the wake of the Vice documentary Syn City about those struggling with addictions to synthetic cannabis. In an interview to promote the documentary, the journalist behind it called the government’s inaction over synthetics “staggering”. And the government’s response? The tired, drum-banging rhetoric of ‘getting tough’, with its empty promise that this will actually tackle the problems related to synthetic cannabis, or any other drug.

Evidence shows, again and again, that law and order approaches to health issues are ineffective. This is abundantly clear given that the 2014 amendment to the 2013 Psychoactive Substances Act – another knee-jerk response – effectively created the unregulated, underground market for synthetics that is today causing users, their families and communities such heartache and grief. Continue reading Solving the Synthetic Cannabis Epidemic