10 Sep 2022

How government's youth crime rhetoric misses the bigger picture

From Focus on Politics, 10:00 am on 10 September 2022

"We are dealing with that crisis of 'hey a kid's just driven into a dairy' - we can do a lot more to prevent it" - youth worker Aaron Hendry 

The government this week launched a week-long media blitz touting its responses to rising youth crime; shifting the rhetoric on a topic the opposition has been targeting for months. 

Those on the ground however fear that in rising to their opponents' bait, the government could be ignoring the more difficult early interventions that could make a real difference. 

A Focus on Politics branded graphic shows Chris Luxon and Kiri Allan in front of a depiction of a ram raid.

Photo: RNZ

Law and order - always easily politicised - is again shaping up as a big election topic, an easy stick for the opposition to hit the government with. The latest cudgel: youth crime and ram raids. 

Nationwide youth crime is down, but it's up 24 percent in Auckland in the past year. Ram raids in the city have become near-daily news items, notorious in part because they are highly visible - driven by social media

Police Minister Chris Hipkins is yet to visit a raided dairy but opposition MPs make a point of calling in on them. National and ACT's leaders, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour both referred on Tuesday to recent visits to shop owners.

"I spent time with a shop owner who's been ram raided and broken into three times in four months and they've worked incredibly hard, they've saved a lot of money to be able to get into that business and lo and behold they are attacked by ram raiders and burglars," Luxon said. 

The day before, at the post-Cabinet media conference, Justice Minister Kiri Allan had kicked off a series of government announcements aiming to counter such easy hits, announcing new police powers to seize assets from gangs.

"I think it's fair to say that this is one of the areas which we as a government have committed to in terms of getting tough on crimes and indeed the ill-gotten gains that they have received through criminal activities," Allan said. 

Kiri Allan

 Justice Minister Kiritapu Allan Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The amendment would allow police to restrain property linked to criminal groups if there's suspicion they didn't fund it legitimately. 

It would also bolster the Proceeds of Crime Fund, which bankrolls - among projects for more than 40 other ministries and agencies - fog cannons and bollards as ram-raid countermeasures through the Small Retailer Crime Prevention Fund announced in May

It was Allan's "tough on crime" phrase that stood out as a direct counter to the softly-softly catchcries of the opposition, but the shift in rhetoric - seeking to assuage declining public support - arguably went too far. 

Community advocate and Black Power life member Denis O'Reilly certainly saw it as pandering to the polls: "No one's going to complain about illicit gains taken off criminals but when you start to conflate organised crime and gangs in the New Zealand context - which generally means brown - and then that gets extended to friends, associates and family, we're going down a slippery slope. This is not good science, this is not good policy."

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Progress from the Crime Prevention fund been slow, with just five stores in Tāmaki Makaurau so far accessing those preventative upgrades. Indeed, those ram raid countermeasures are something of a bottom-of-the-cliff remedy. 

Tuesday's announcement, then, was a switchback to the clifftop. In West Auckland - combining his Police portfolio hat with his Education mortarboard, Hipkins unveiled the $53 million "Better Pathways" plan alongside Social Development and Employment minister Carmen Sepuloni. 

Chris Hipkins

Police and Education Minister Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It would extend support to young offenders, and steer them towards study and work, through investment in existing programmes.

All parties agree that interventions are needed to help young offenders avoid the adult criminal justice system, and get caught up in the cycle - where they differ is how to tackle it.

The opposition has been crying out for the government to do more about ram raids for six months. Luxon says Better Pathways is just window dressing: too little, too late

ACT weeks ago called for on-the-spot fines or community service for youths caught shoplifting, and in response to the government's plans Seymour went a step further. The party would have known 'put ankle bracelets on 11-year-olds' would spark outcry and headlines, and it certainly did. 

Hipkins says the soft-versus-tough-on-crime war of words is mere populist politics.

"We've also got to try and have fewer people getting into that trouble in the first place. There are some young people around the periphery who are being drawn into offending because they're not engaged constructively in other things. They're not engaged in education, they're not engaged in employment, if we can get them off the streets doing something positive then actually there are going to be fewer victims in the first place." 

The government does not deny youth crime is a problem, but the truth is there's no magic bullet for crime prevention and reduction.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says it's important to look after businesses but there are bigger social woes at play, as highlighted by school attendance statistics for rangatahi. 

Politicians have been ignoring the youth experts, she says, but it's those voices that are providing the solutions that could lead to real change. 

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Youth development worker and rangatahi advocate Aaron Hendry says what's needed is evidence-based solutions to the causes of youth offending.

"The tough on crime rhetoric, it's rhetoric without teeth, right? It doesn't work, we know it doesn't work - you speak to anyone in the sector, that's not the thing that's going to make the change happen," he says. 

"We have government agencies that are overworked and have huge caseloads, so they can't do early intervention with whānau or community services that are overworked and are responding to crisis every day.

"No policy that you set today is going to solve it for tomorrow. It's something we are going to have to take a wider view and actually be strategic around... how we can intervene really early to prevent it from actually occurring in the first place."

Lifewise Youth Housing Team Leader Aaron Hendry

 Youth development worker and rangatahi advocate Aaron Hendry Photo: RNZ/ Eva Corlett

But, Hendry says, the government's proposed education approach is not enough.

"For this group that are reoffending quite regularly there's another context beneath that ... if you don't have a safe place to live, and if you don't have your basic needs being met, then you're not going to be able to engage in that program.

"They're not going to get the opportunity to engage in those programs because, hey, they're living in emergency accommodation, or they're sleeping on the street or they're couchsurfing. And they just do not have even that most basic human rights to a safe whare. So that stuff also needs to sit alongside any interventions that are getting put on the table."

In the short term, however, store owners can only hope ram raids peter out - either curbed by the long-awaited bollards and fog cannons, or as a fleeting social media fad.

And for governments of all stripes, the challenge will be investing in the longer-term, delayed payoff strategies those the ground say will work.

In today's Focus on Politics podcast Political Reporter Giles Dexter reviews the government's approach to youth crime, and examines what is missing from the debate.

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