Category Archives: Commentaries

Drug Reform Bill: Glimmer of positivity or ‘get tough’?

The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill has passed its final reading and will come into law in the near future. More than anything, I want to join in the chorus of positive sentiment around this bill, particularly because people and organisations I admire and am inspired by have encouraged it through its at times rocky ride in parliament. But I just can’t be wholly positive about the changes the bill will engender.

Let’s also be crystal clear that the bill does not decriminalise all drugs, as some online enthusiasts have suggested; it legalises police discretion in deciding whether to prosecute and directs police to use a health-based rather than a criminal approach.

This is not the same as decriminalising all drug use. And herein lies one of the problems – embedding discretion further into our justice system will deepen existing inequalities. The use of discretion will continue to over-police already stressed and marginalised communities often subject to the harshest policing practices.

Most of the proposals in the bill add to the failed, outdated Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and the ineffective “war on drugs”: the reclassifying of AMB-FUBINACA and 5F-ADB as class A drugs; the creation of temporary class orders, all enacted as “get tough” measures to address the harms from synthetic cannabinoids.

Unfortunately, these kinds of measures do not work in effectively addressing or reducing the harms from drug use, nor do they effectively reduce or address the demand for drugs like synthetic cannabinoids. “Getting tough” on drugs and those who supply them has not helped us in over four decades of the “war on drugs” – it has filled prisons with low-level users and dealers, often suffering from addictions themselves. Continue reading Drug Reform Bill: Glimmer of positivity or ‘get tough’?

Rape victims deserve radical justice changes

By surdumihail, commons.wikimedia.org

Incrementalism will only take us so far, as the ‘system of injustice’ for sexual violence victims requires a transformational approach.

Back in the mid-1990s a New Zealand judge, the Hon Justice E. W. Thomas, wrote an article slamming the lack of justice accorded rape victims by the very system in which he held office. Rape, he said, is “the most vicious and reprehensible crime in the criminal calendar”. Our courts failed such victims, he asserted, a reprehensible occurrence since “the violated woman should not be victimised a second time”. The law changes announced this week by under-secretary to the minister of justice Jan Logie are, he would be pleased to see, oriented towards “ensuring fairness and safety for victims of sexual violence in the justice system”.

The changes proposed include giving sexual violence victims the right to choose by which means they give their evidence in court, training and supporting judges to intervene to protect complainants from inappropriate or aggressive questioning, and ensuring the availability of specialist assistance for witnesses who need it in order to maximise their ability to understand and respond to questions. Changes will also be made to ensure rape complainants can trust that they will not have to share the same waiting spaces and bathrooms as defendants and their family/whānau while attending trials.

These moves deserve to be roundly applauded. They are evidence-based initiatives that should help to prevent some of the most brutalising aspects of the existing system. However, much of what is being mooted could be viewed as basic rights that should have been recognised years ago. When it comes to rape, our justice system still languishes in the dark ages. It is also difficult to comprehend that many of the changes articulated were not introduced by the previous government, given the extent of the information they were provided with from the Law Commission and other sources urging the dire need for reform. Continue reading Rape victims deserve radical justice changes

Seeping Supremacy

 

Wikimedia, thanks to A T Carroll

On 20 March, it emerged that 10 years of public documents from NZ spy agencies contained zero mentions of rightwing extremism. Yet narratives invoking racialised fears and myths of Pakeha superiority run deep.

We have officially experienced two acts of terrorism in New Zealand. The first was the bombing of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior ship by French government agents in July 1985. The second is almost too painful to write: our sadness, anger and confusion for the white supremacist massacre and maiming of Muslim New Zealanders at prayer is profound.

For now, we have to attend to our personal, community and institutional needs – recognise those we have lost, mourn, support those victimised in all ways possible, reassert our community relationships, change gun laws, investigate whether security agencies ‘dropped the ball’, and provide accountability. All of these things, and others are vital today and in the years ahead.

Yet, we might also reflect on the structural and societal underpinnings of this terror. Because despite their significant differences in nature and impact, these forms of violence are bound together through their ultimate expressions of supremacy. Continue reading Seeping Supremacy

‘Terrorism has No Religion’

Flowers at the Kilburnie mosque, Wellington

 

‘… and death shall have no dominion’ — Dylan Thomas

The only way to begin, is by joining in sorrow with those bereaved in Christchurch on 15 March, and remembering and respecting the fellow humanity of those who, so painfully recently, were also living. Of course, we must find a way to comfort those made fearful by this terror: especially since such fear-making was its major purpose.

There are some crimes of such moment that we always remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is one such that is often named; September 11th is another. The latter was a terrorist attack that was made for showing on television; I heard it on the radio and obstinately refused to watch TV for two days. The Christchurch massacres were made for propagating the terror and ideology via the internet. I am not yet clear about what this means, but it is obvious that it is significant, and that the jumbled ravings of the killer were put together with gleanings from the Web. He says so, in his pre-murder ‘manifesto’. Police and politicians cautioned us not to watch the video footage. Indeed I had no stomach to do so. Yet I spent the night reading the weird manifesto, which was easy enough to get hold of early on. Continue reading ‘Terrorism has No Religion’

Drug Law Reforms

Fiona Hutton

Well, what a year 2018 was in terms of drug policy and drug law reform, both in New Zealand and farther afield.

New Zealand saw the debates surrounding the cannabis referendum intensify. A bill to allow terminally ill people to access medical cannabis recently passed. The Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, He Ara Oranga, called for the decriminalisation of illegal drugs to address problems relating to addiction and mental health. The government made new announcements around synthetics.

Elsewhere, more US states have legalised the sale and recreational use of cannabis, and in October Canada legalised it too. In places that have enacted wide-reaching, much-needed drug law reform, there have been no dramatic increases in the use of cannabis or other drugs, especially among young people. All very encouraging for New Zealand as we look towards possibly wide-reaching, much-needed reforms of our own approach to illegal drugs. Continue reading Drug Law Reforms

Substituting Controls

Wikimedia Commons, Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick

Since April, prison numbers have been slashed 8 per cent and 800 people released. The fall is especially surprising as forecasts predicted large increases.

Critics warned of crisis if the Government did not build a billion-dollar mega prison. Yet at this rate, Labour would achieve their ambitious goal of cutting prison numbers 30 per cent in less than four years.

The Department of Corrections are leading the reforms. Their approach involves clearing internal barriers to prisoners’ release: having staff help illiterate prisoners fill forms and make phone calls to arrange bail, for example, and delivering programs earlier in sentences to get them ready for parole. “It’s all common sense,” says Leigh Marsh, head of the departmental changes. “Really, really simple stuff.”

The innovation is in the politics. Labour are stuck with a conservative coalition partner and struggling to get the necessary votes for legislative change, so are sidestepping Parliament all together. By working inside the state machinery they inherited, they are avoiding the public relations hit of trying to change bail or parole laws.

Yet they are also making trade-offs: locating reform inside corrections limits the scope and transformative potential.

Much of what is happening seems like a shift in styles of control, as people are moved from prison cells to various forms of electronic monitoring, intensive supervision and home detention. Three quarters of the 40,000 people managed by the department are already in the community. Continue reading Substituting Controls

Criminological Thinking

    In recent weeks, a grainy video has been circulating on YouTube. It shows one of NZ’s Professors, a well-known Criminologist, in action. I watched it a few days ago. It’s just over twenty minutes long and contains clips from a series of lectures given over the entirety of a course.

    I sat down to watch with some trepidation. We have all messed up in lectures. I thought of my worst scenarios, and began to imagine them beamed around the world. All teachers go off on tangents, we are not textbooks. I’m sure some of my students would attest that I sometimes get distracted, waylaid, and I probably make a few too many bad jokes.

    I don’t always get ideas across in the best ways possible. I’m northern English, and while I’ve lived in NZ for over 15 years, my ability to properly engage with Māori and Pasifika communities is admittedly a work in progress. Still, I want everyone to come to lectures or seminars and to see them as nourishing, safe, interesting and research-loaded experiences.

    I thought about the student who had uploaded the clip. I worried for them – it’s one thing to record something for personal study, but another to distribute it so widely. I wondered about the ethics of doing this.

    I have struggled too with the politics of writing this short piece. I am mindful that the video excerpts are just that….short snips amid the hours of lecturing. We are missing the context. But, I am also aware of the responsibility that comes with our position, to challenge injustice where we see it, to be a ‘critic and conscience’.

    I have also bothered about my discipline – that viewers might watch this video and get the wrong impression. NZ Criminology is generally very well-regarded for its rigorous nature. The Institute of Criminology, where I work, is continually praised by international and national peers for its high quality teaching, excellent research, professionalism and educational standards. These Youtube portrayals are not the norm for my discipline. Continue reading Criminological Thinking

    Royal Commission as State Protection?

    The Royal Commission into Historical Abuse was fully launched this week. With skilled Commissioners at the helm, there is much to like about this new body.

    The headline news was that the Commission would expose the abuse in faith-based institutions alongside that in state care placements. The Bishops came out to demonstrate their support. Let us all hope that they will still be ‘standing up to be counted’ when the concerns of apologies, compensation and institutional changes are recommended over the next few years.

    The Commission now has an extensive remit, and rightly so. The experiences of those abused in foster care, adoption placements, children’s homes, state residences, borstals, psychiatric hospitals, disability facilities, health camps, early childhood facilities, state schools, special residential schools, teen parent units, police cells, court cells and even places of transport between care settings will all be examined.

    Alongside children and young people, ‘vulnerable adults’ (such as those who have mental health problems or disabilities) will have their abuse recognised.

    The Commission will also be able to uncover the structural, systemic and practical factors that contributed to abuse, and tell us about the impacts on victims but also their families, whānau, hapū, iwi and communities, including how the trauma of abuse crosses over generations.

    So much of this is commendable. It has the potential to change the way we think about many social problems – crime, mental health, family breakdowns, state interventions.

    Yet, amid the fanfare, there is a creeping feeling of state self-protection. A few months ago, I had a conversation with a senior government worker on the draft Terms for this Commission. He happily remarked ‘We missed a bullet there!’  And, today, I am sure that many senior civil servants and politicians are feeling quietly comfortable at the confirmation that the Commission will not have any great impact on them or their institutional operations. Continue reading Royal Commission as State Protection?

    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. Continue reading Dark places

    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

    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

    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