Thursday, 15 May 2014

The ‘Leading Justice’ Symposium - Well-staged - Great Reviews – But Where were the Audience?

by Kim Workman

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
Noam Chomsky

 In July 2013, Treasury produced an excellent report, ‘Windows of Opportunity to Deliver Better Justice Sector Outcomes over the Long Term’.  (1)  Its advice has been seminal in guiding the Better Public Service (BPS) Reducing Crime and Reoffending Strategy.  However, Treasury’s advice to   tell a clear and compelling story on justice sector performance, focussing more on what is being achieved and less on how services are provided’, has been misinterpreted.  
This advice has led the Justice sector to provide regular media updates on its success in reducing crime and reoffending, but very little information on how that has been achieved.  As a result, the paying public are feeling increasingly detached from the action – a little like going to a play, but only being allowed to watch the ending and join in the applause. 
The format is well established, and it is difficult to recall an occasion in recent times, when a Justice Sector Minister or a Justice Sector CEO has not preceded a speech without reference to the BPS results – to the point that people are tiring of it.  They want some meat with their potatoes.  If the story is to be ‘clear and compelling’, then the public need to understand not only what has been achieved, but how. 
The Leading Justice Symposium, the most recent Justice Sector event, was a case in point.  It is not often that some of the world’s leading experts on crime prevention and control are gathered in one place, to take part in a high level symposium.  The Minister of Justice  Hon Judith Collins, publicly announced the forum, just two days before it was held.
On the day before the Symposium, the Minister announced the latest BPS results, declaring the lowest crime rate since 1978.  Rethinking took the trouble to point out that in 1978 the imprisonment rate was 88 per 100,000 population, compared to about 200 per 100,000 today, and that the next BPS goal should be to reduce the prison population
 The Symposium addressed four key issues:
  • Global and Domestic Trends
  • New Zealand’s Justice Sector in 2024
  • What the NZ Justice sector should focus on now to reduce the 2024 crimescape
  • How the justice sector should respond to reduce victimisation and support future victims.
The Symposium, which  was opened with a speech by the Ministerincluded eight international justice sector experts, who were asked to provide the Government with fresh thinking around reducing crime and victimisation, including  new issues such as cyber-bullying, identity theft, hacking, and online stalking – concepts unheard of a generation ago.

The crime experts invited were well chosen for the task – most had backgrounds in what is now called crime science; the study of crime in order to find ways to prevent it. Three features distinguish crime science from the traditional approach to criminology in that it:
  1. Focuses on cutting crime;
  2. Focuses on crime rather than criminals; and
  3. Relies on scientific methodology rather than social theory.
Crime Science is an interesting development in the field of criminology, and had its first public incarnation when the  Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science was formed in 2001.  The Institute  is established in the Engineering Sciences Faculty, with growing ties to the physical sciences such as physics and chemistry but also drawing on the fields of statistics, environmental design, forensics, policing, economics and geography.  It is increasingly popular with politicians, as it avoids having to take responsibility for shortcomings in social policy.  As with most new developments, there are acolytes who regard crime science as the holy grail, and would prefer to see it separated from social theory and criminology, rather than as a valuable part of an integrated whole.

Not so the crime science experts chosen for this symposium .  Dr Gloria Laycock, was the first Director of the Jill Dando Institute and is an expert on situational crime prevention, and among other things, repeat victimisation.  Professor Betsy Stanko is a world leader in violence prevention, and well known for her ability to take social science research beyond academia and use the evidence to guide public policy.  Another expert, Professor Russell G. Smith is the Principal Criminologist at the Australian Institute of Criminology and has specialties in global, economic and electronic crime trends.

The mix of topics was indicative of where the government may be placing its emphasis – repeat victimisation, and domestic and sexual violence are likely to be high priorities in the future.  When experts get together, the dialogue can get a little stratospheric  - but by all accounts Sir Mark Solomon’s contribution to the discussion -  typically honest, heartfelt and blunt -  returned participants momentarily to ground level.  Dr Kim McGregor’s speech  on sexual violence was made publicly available.

The following day, the Justice Minister of Justice advised the public that the symposium was an outstanding success, and that in the view of Dr Gloria Laycock, New Zealanders were the best in the world at ‘fighting crime’. She then wandered from the approved script and  attributed the reduction in crime to ‘stiffer sentencing’ – a view unconnected to any evidence, either in New Zealand or internationally.2 Government also announced a $10.4m boost in sexual violence funding.  This was indeed a lightning response to  public criticism by Dr Jackie Blue, Human Rights Commissioner  for Women.  Dr Blue, a former National MP, submitted to the Social Services Select Committee on 2 April that the funding gaps for sexual violence victims were a blemish on human rights, and produced the submission to the inquiry into the funding of specialist sexual violence social service in support.

The Symposium  was a masterful production, with a stellar cast, slick marketing and a happy ending.  We didn’t witness the production, but by all accounts, the producers deserve our applause and support.

Perhaps the most interesting insights came from Dr Gloria Laycock, the star player, who escaped the theatre long enough to be interviewed by Andrea Vance, recently voted Reporter of the Year.  In the article, “Politicians Can’t Take Credit for Crime Drop’  (Dominion Post 3 May 14).(3)  Dr Laycock  pointed out that politicians can’t take credit for the crime drop. and that:

  • The plummeting crime rate is an international trend, and due more to science and technology than political strategy.  Technology such as home security systems and central locking systems in cars have fuelled a drop in youth crime.
  • The New Zealand Police focus on crime prevention was outstanding.  However, the court system should adopt a similar ‘problem solving’ approach, e.g. drug courts.   
  • The rest of the criminal justice system needs to move away from a focus on punishment, retribution and sentencing. 
  • Reductions in family violence and child abuse was not necessarily a good thing, as those crimes are seriously under-reported.  In that situation, an increase in reported offending should be regarded as a positive    (In New Zealand, only about 10% of all family violence and child abuse incidents and child abuse cases are reported to the Police.)

Professor Laycock ‘s comments  teach a valuable lesson.   If we accept that all is well in the world of criminal justice then we can fail to more closely question and examine the effectiveness of what is being done.

In Rethinking’s view, Treasury advice to focus on outcomes rather than activity, needs to be balanced against other advice in the same report; i.e. that in order to be successful, ‘Consensus across the sector and with the wider public about how best to deliver the aims of a safe and just society is required.” (p. 12)

The Treasury Minister, the Hon Bill English, has gone further.  He recently stressed the importance of consulting not only with the public, but with justice consumers.  In a recent speech to the Institute of Public Administration, (3) he urged public servants to focus more strongly on clients and customers.

The public service and politicians run the risk of losing respect for the people for whom we are providing services. To combat that, we will increasingly ask, “Do we really understand the nature of our interaction with the general public, and our customers?” “Do we really understand how the behaviour of public institutions impacts on those people, and have we asked them?”

As an example, he talked about the importance of treating prisoners as customers;

“………. That is going to mean more sitting down and understanding our customers, for example the newly- released prisoner who is potentially a very expensive individual in our community because he is likely to end up back in a very expensive system. Do we know how he thinks and what his aspirations are?”

Getting Wider Public Consensus 

The best way to get ‘wide public consensus’  is to engage the public in the conversation.  When the next ‘Leading Justice’ symposium is held, the Ministry of Justice could also hold a   public symposium or conference, featuring the international experts,  who would be available to share their knowledge with the 'wider public', and respond to questions.   The Ministry will hopefully  publish proceedings from the Symposium,  but reading about other peoples’ decisions, is not quite the same thing as being party to the dialogue.

This recommended approach not only reflects Treasury advice, but is also Smart on Crime.  

  1. NZ Treasury . ‘Windows of Opportunity to Deliver Better Justice Sector Outcomes over the Long Term’-   Background Paper for the 2013 Statement on the Long Term Fiscal Position, July 2013.
  2. P. Gendreau, C. Goggin and F.T. Cullen (1999). The Effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism, Ottawa: Solicitor General of Canada.
  3. Hon Bill English, Speech to the Institute of Public Administration, 20 Feb 2014

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