Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Understanding the BPS Reducing Crime and Reoffending Plan: Part One - Reducing the Democratic Deficit


by Kim Workman

The government’s Better Public Service Reducing Crime and Reoffending Strategy  was introduced in July 2012, and set targets for both the overall reduction in crime and the reduction of reoffending.  Since then, the government has issued regular progress updates, informing the public of its success. 

The strategy has been successful on a number of fronts.  First, it wrenched political parties and the punitive public away from the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric; the triennial bidding war and the ‘rush to punish’.  Second, it changed the nature of the debate from “What Should We Do?” to “How Should We Do it?”  Third, it gave government agencies the opportunity to propose strategies based their current understanding about  ‘what works’.  Finally, it presented justice sector agencies with a set of targets, which they were required to meet.

The Government developed six action plans to deliver these results:  

·         Support repeat victims
·         Target repeat locations
·         Improve assessment and interventions for youth
·         Reduce availability of alcohol
·         Increase alcohol and drug treatment in the community
·         Strengthen rehabilitation and re-integration services to prepare and support people to live law-abiding lives

Reporting on Progress

From the outset, government-generated  publicity promised a major reduction in overall crime, rather than a reduction in recorded crime.  In July 2012, Minister Judith Collins,  announced the new strategy: 

“2011 saw the lowest crime rate in thirty years. Resolution rates continue to increase, and even violent crime – which had been rising – has stabilised. But for a victim of crime, that one crime is too many. Even on top of recent gains, achieving these targets will mean 112,000 fewer crimes between now and 2017 – and thousands fewer victims.”

Fast forward to March 2014, when Minister Anne Tolley in a media release, referred to a drop of 17.4% in recorded  crime, and went on to say that the target of a 25 per cent reduction in reoffending by 2017, will result in huge benefits for communities and taxpayers;
“It will mean safer streets, with 18,500 fewer victims of crime each year, as well as 4,000 fewer community offenders and 600 less prisoners in jails.”
The following month, Minister Collins in reporting on  progress until December 2013,  again made no mention of whether the reduction  was in the actual crime rate, or the recorded crime rate.   

“New Zealand now has the lowest crime rate since 1978 but most importantly, the results mean New Zealanders are experiencing around 56,000 fewer crimes a year, leading to fewer victims of crime.

What Does the Public Understand these Results to Mean?  – A Social Network Survey

Rethinking Crime and Punishment became concerned at the considerable public confusion about what these figures meant, and how they would be achieved.  It ran a survey through its social networks, to find out what respondents understood these progress reports to mean.  We didn’t have the resources to run a random survey, and the results do not represent the views of all New Zealanders.  Nevertheless, the results gave indications as to the confusion inside and outside government circles around how the government evaluates success in crime reduction strategies.  We decided to publish the result, given that the public interest outweighed the limitations of a non-random sample. 

We then asked David Harpham, former Principal Strategic Analyst, Department of Corrections, to report on the survey.  David is both highly experienced and highly respected.  His report makes some important observations about the current gap that exists between survey respondent’s preferred crime evaluation measure, (i.e. a reduction in reported crime), versus the Minister's crime evaluation measure, (i.e. a reduction in recorded crime). 

Summary of Key Results:  

Reductions in Crime Questions

1. Reported (rather than recorded) crime was the most popular measure of crime for respondents. Reported crime data was even more popular when considering violent crime.
2. Respondent answers produced a consistent pattern over different contexts.
3. Respondents generally believed that the minister's reporting aligned with the respondents' own interpretation, even when this was not the case.
4. Typically less than a quarter of respondents (including Justice sector employee respondents)  identified with the current Police “recorded crime” approach as their preferred best metric  for evaluating crime reductions.

Reductions in Reoffending Questions

1. Most respondents (80%) selected that re-offending reductions should be evaluated by measuring re-convictions.
2. Most respondents selected that re-offending should be measured for anyone with a conviction.  This differs from the way official figures are currently produced which relate only to those with sentences managed by Corrections.  It is not clear if respondents understood the difference and that convictions include all those with fines as well.
3. A few respondents thought the measure for re-offending reductions should only be about released prisoners.
4. Respondents generally seemed to believe that the minister's reporting aligned with the respondent's own thinking. This was not usually the case.

Other Observations

Justice Sector Staff Equally Confused

There was a surprisingly high rate of Department of Corrections' (verified by IP address) senior staff and other Justice sector involvement but the observations and the responses were not seen to be greatly different between Justice and non justice respondents.  Given this high Justice sector representation one might reasonably conclude that even Justice officials don't greatly understand the metrics being used to assert crime reduction success.

Other Means of Measuring Crime Reduction

The choices offered in the survey did not include any options to measure crime outcomes more directly and independently of Justice sector budgets.  For example, one could measure insurance burglary claims and hospital visits for person on person injury and the use of community surveys. Offering such choices would have improved the scope of the survey usefulness.

Recorded Crime Rates are not Direct Measures of Offending Rates

The Minister regularly presents crime recording rates and re-conviction rates as if they are direct measures of offending rates.  The reality is that both of these measures depend in large part on Justice sector budget and processing decisions.  If you stopped all policing you would stop recording crime and also stop recording re-convictions but this would not mean crime has reduced.  More focus on diverting young offenders will reduce re-convictions, but offences may still have taken place pre-diversion.  The current Police and Corrections approaches to measuring crime targets are prone to abuse by spin doctors. 

Use of Rates rather than Totals of Reconviction

Even more confusing is to use rates rather than totals of re-conviction as measures to indicate progress.  The difficulty here is that the total convictions of recidivists can have increased even when the re-conviction rate has gone down.  The opposite is also true.  The rate only provides a measure of the relative concentration of Justice engagement with recidivist offenders versus Justice engagement with non recidivist offenders.  A successful decrease in the number of recidivists could easily be masked by a proportionate decrease in the number of non recidivists processed.  The rate or proportion might be the same despite big successful changes. 

An example of the reporting problem might help. If 30 out of 40 released recidivists were re-convicted and 60 non-recidivists were also released then Corrections would report a 30% re-conviction rate (30/100). However if we had a successful rehabilitation program the next year with only 20 out of 40 released recidivists re-convicted along with also having a successful diversion program for non-recidivist types so that only 20 of these passed through prison and were released then Corrections would report a 30% re-conviction rate (20/60). No apparent change but a radically different dialogue. Similar examples can be envisioned where things have got worse but the numbers actually look better.

Following Treasury Advice
In July 2013, Treasury wrote a background paper for the long term fiscal strategy that identified opportunities to deliver better Justice Sector Outcomes in the short term.[1]  It advised the Justice sector 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’

Tht advice has led to regular updates on the reduction of crime and reoffending, but very little information on how that has been achieved.
That advice has created a public knowledge gap, confirmed by our survey.  There must be a growing suspicion of the validity of the statistical information in the absence of detailed information about how the reductions were achieved. If the story is to be ‘clear and compelling’, then the public need to understand not only what has been achieved, but how.

In our view, the advice from Treasury has been misinterpreted, and conflicts with advice given earlier in the report that

Consensus across the sector and with the wider public about how best to deliver the aims of a safe and just society is required. [2]

Rethinking’s Position

We are emerging from two weeks of “Dirty Politics” – a time when the dark underbelly of New Zealand politics has been seriously exposed, and our confidence in the integrity of politicians seriously undermined.  If the BPS Reducing Crime and Reoffending strategy is to succeed, it is critical that it quickly overcomes the credibility gap that is starting to develop, between what is happening, and what the public is told is happening.  There has to be clear and transparent access to information, and an understanding of what the justice sector is doing, and why. 

We are supportive of pre-charge warnings, alternative dispositions, and approaches which keep people (especially young offenders) away from the formal criminal justice system.  The evidence is clear, that actions of that kind reduce reoffending over the long term. 
Failure to provide clear information and to be honest about what is happening, will only serve to fuel scepticism and doubt about its effectiveness.  That kind of approach excludes the need to come up with spectacular reported outcomes, which on closer scrutiny, may not stack up.  We should rejoice in any improvement, however modest. 

Addressing the ‘Democratic Deficit

“It appears that trust in statistics presented by politicians is high and clarity in measuring outcomes is low.  This is unlikely to be a healthy combination for informed democracy.”
David Harpham
A ‘democratic deficit’ exists when there is any situation in which there is believed to be a lack of democratic accountability and control over the decision –making process.  It includes a situation in which there is a gap between public expectations and the government’s performance and policy; between what they expect of the system, how they expect it to work, and their influence on it.


There is a gaping hole between the government and the public in relation to the BPS Strategy.  It needs to be addressed, preferably when the justice sector meets to review its BPS targets, and set new ones. 

Last week Ministers Bill English and Jonathan Coleman announced that after the election, they intended to raise the BPS target and reduce the total crime rate by 20 per cent from June 2011 to June 2017 – up from the current target reduction of 15 per cent.  We would urge caution – first let’s have an increase in transparency and accountability before further confusing the public. 

An Independent Evaluation Mechanism

“It is time to call for a capable and independent body to provide transparent evaluation of total criminal harm. A healthy democracy needs this to confidently assess the merits of the coercive arm of government”. 
David Harpham

There is growing concern at the lack of independent evaluation of programmes within the justice sector, and claims of success in the absence of independent assessment.  Incentivisation brings its own challenges.   Any review of the BPS Reducing Crime and Reoffending Strategy, should consider the extent to which it relies on government agencies to report their own success or failure, and whether there is sufficient external audit of performance. 

It would seem highly likely that there are some real good news stories underlying the statistics. We like to think this because we like the ‘What works’ roots of recent changes and we support the stated good intentions of the new initiatives.  But it also seems highly likely that given the lack of independence for the only statistics available that we cannot be certain of the scale of the real social gains and we must be even less sure about attribution for any improvements.

Watch out for Our Next Blog:

Keep an eye out for Part Two – coming out tomorrow.  

Understanding the BPS Reducing Crime and Reoffending Plan –
Part Two –Reducing Reoffending – Pushing the Boat Out



[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. http://www.treasury.govt.nz/government/longterm/fiscalposition/2013/pdfs/ltfs-13-bg-bjso.pdf
[2] Treasury Paper, p.12

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At last ! You have confirmed my own growing impression over the last year that these figures were confusing and misleading at the very least. Thank you.

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