Tough on Crime or Smart on Crime – the End of an Era?
In a hard-hitting address to the Wellington Combined Probus Meeting this morning, Dr Kim Workman, Research Associate at
the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University, urged those present, to ignore the ‘fear of crime’ messages promoted
by politicians and the media.
He discussed 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. He concluded by talking about what
happens when a political party proposes a new way of doing things, and its likelihood of success.
“We have to stop believing that talkback radio and social media sites represent public opinion,” he said. :”We have to
stop dressing up an extreme position and parading it as evidence. The public is not a uniform entity with one single,
static viewpoint. It is made up of many differing and changing opinions. Whilst a majority of people may think that the
courts are too soft, they also recognise that prison is expensive and damaging. People support alternative, non-punitive
responses, once they have the opportunity to consider a case in detail. The idea that everyone supports harsh punishment
is a vote-gathering delusion.
“The problem we have is that the government has not commissioned a comprehensive survey of public attitudes toward crime
and punishment since 2003, so we don’t know accurately know what current public opinion is. We need one urgently, for
two reasons. First, public attitudes heavily influence political motivation, and judicial behaviour. Good public policy
on crime and punishment issues establishes what social scientists call “the boundaries of political permission” i.e. the
limits or borders within which public policy will be supported, or tolerated, by the public.”
“Understanding how the public frames an issue, will help us attain a better understanding of public opinion, and map out
our public thinking. We know from recent research overseas, that the same people that call for increased imprisonment
for violent offenders, are also highly supportive of policies that favour rehabilitation over imprisonment, supported
expanded drug and alcohol treatment, and the use of noncustodial, community based or alternative sentences with both
non-violent and violent offenders. Claims by politicians and “tough on crime” lobby groups that the public want a more
punitive approach are not supported by evidence.”
“He urged the audience to look at what was happening overseas. “Where do we go next? In the 1990’s, we turned to the
United States for a solution. We need to pay them another visit. Over the last decade, the US prison population has
reduced by 14%, and 38 of the 50 States have introduced legislation to reduce the prison population; abandoning three
strikes legislation, doing away with restrictive bail laws, making it easier for prisoners to be released on parole,
reducing sentence lengths for non-violent prisoners, and reinvesting resources into community-based alternatives. This
has all been achieved without a risk to public safety. “
“The Minister of Justice is planning a Criminal Justice Summit, to discuss and develop a long-term criminal justice
strategy. It is likely to provide for wide public consultation, and an effort to determine what the public are
Let’s start by reading Dr Ian Lambie’s two reports; ‘Using evidence to build a better justice system, and the Prevention
of Youth Offending.
“We have to decide as a nation, whether to rely on policy-based evidence, or evidence-based policy. We have to decide
whether we want to be tough on crime, or smart on crime. The government has signalled an intention to take a different
approach for the first time in thirty years. We owe it to the government to listen, to debate, and to discuss. “
1. Dr Ian Lambie, Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs, Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, March 2018