The Real Meaning of Sensible Sentencing

The Real Meaning of Sensible Sentencing

New Zealand is not a country growing increasingly tolerant of crime. In fact, the opposite is true; we are growing more intolerant. This is a graph of our prison population. The black line is historical data, reaching back to 1994. The source is the Ministry of Justice, who would know because, well, they have to feed these people:

Prison population, 1994 - 2005, and projections

"But," you might say, "this rise is surely indicative of a rise in crime. Are we not in the clutches of a crime wave?". Well, no, we're not. The total per capita crime rate has fallen 25% since 1992. The crime rate for dishonesty offences, a class which includes theft and burglary, has fallen 32% since 1996. Compare those figures with the above graph.

"But hasn't the violent crime rate gone up? That's what the TV tells me!" Sure, the rate has risen from 107 to 118 violent crimes per thousand citizens, since 1996. But, as the SNZ report says, "in reality, the increase in violent offences is virtually solely attributable to an increase in threats and intimidation" (they grew 37%). Combine that with changes in "propensity to report crime" (the proliferation of cellphones, in particular), campaigns targeting domestic violence (and, recently, child abuse) and media interest, and you begin to get the picture.

So, while crime is down 25%, incarceration is up 75%. And this is tolerance for crime?

The rise in our prison population is something we should be concerned about. And the crime rate shows we should be concerned not because our streets are growing more dangerous (they're not), but because our sentences have reached beyond justice and into revenge.

Nobody deserves to be a victim of crime. But state-instituted punishment, especially on behalf of victims, is, itself, an injustice.



I'd like to correct my statistics for the 25%/75% line there. That's comparing an absolute figure (prison population) with a per capita figure (crime rates) - not exactly fair.

To correct for this, consider that the population grew 14% from 1994 to 2006. So, take 14% off the 75% figure.

The line should read "while crime is down 25%, incarceration is up 60%".