Guest Post: Intervention needs to come before the first strike

A guest post from Rex Widerstrom, carrying on the debate:

Thanks to David Garrett’s “three strikes” law, New Zealand now has a razor-wire enclosure waiting at the bottom of the cliff for anyone who commits three serious offences. The concept is sold as being based on deterrence; not only will the offender on their first or second strike stop and think before offending again but other would-be criminals will not escalate from the minor to the major leagues.

The problem is, deterrence isn’t effective. If it was, then the ultimate deterrent – the death penalty – would see those US states which practice it free of those crimes for which make an offender eligible to be executed. Or at the very least, ensure that the prevalence of those offences was less than in jurisdictions where a lethal injection didn’t await the offender. But statistics tell us it doesn’t.

Anyone who’s spent any time working with offenders – particularly those who commit “nuisance” offences such as vandalism and stealing and those prone to violence – knows that they generally lack a certain capacity to reason. For anyone to claim that such a person stands, spray can or baseball bat in hand, and considers the potential consequences of their offending is either naive, deceived, or lying.

Such a person isn’t considering the effect of their offending on their mother, father, siblings, girl or boyfriend, wife, husband, sometimes children. If they don’t care about the people who should be most precious in their lives only the most deluded theorist would posit that they will care about society’s response, even if that is in the form of a very long prison sentence.

The Three Strikes law will be “successful” in its aim of locking away for lengthy periods those guilty of the worst sort of crimes (it’ll also trap a few who really shouldn’t face such a penalty, though NZ’s law is far better at avoid this than, say, California’s). But implicit in its functioning is the acceptance that at least three – and, in reality, many more – victims will first have to suffer.

We didn’t – we don’t – need that razor wire enclosure beneath a cliff littered with vandalised and stolen property and broken and traumatised victims. We need a cattle race at the top, directing someone who’s shown the propensity to embark on a cycle of offending into a life that offers them an alternative.

While I’m uneasy at the thought of privately run “boot camps” – with their inherent potential for various forms of abuse if the operator is unsuitable – I have no such reservations about the NZ Army’s Limited Service Volunteers program.

The latest group of graduates have described how the program turned their lives around, with one saying:

I was smoking a lot of P, drinking every day and doing heaps of burglaries and hanging out with the wrong people. Getting money to pay for drugs was my life.

“Before I didn’t care about anything, I didn’t listen to anyone, but I was a follower, not a leader…

“[The course] changed my life heaps. I’m a lot more self-motivated, I’ve dumped my old friends and I don’t even put my hands in my pockets any more because I’m not used to it.”

Sound familiar? It does to anyone working in the youth justice field. The young man quoted is described in the article as having been “put on the LSV course by Work and Income as an alternative to a jail sentence”. Presumably – unless the judiciary have abdicated their responsibility – a court was involved at some point.

The LSV program takes young people aged 17 to 25. What’s desperately needed is something for even younger offenders; the current legislatively enshrined inability of the courts to deal “harshly” with child offenders in turn ensures a ready cohort of 17 year old candidates who would benefit from LSV. We have Sea Scouts and Cadet Corps and the ATC – expand them to provide a “junior LSV”, perhaps non-residential, for offenders under 17. And while we’re at it, create an army program for those over 25 as well.

Of course the army approach isn’t the optimum for every offender. We also need to get creative and give our courts more sentencing options like this one, not less as “three strikes” does. I know of one Magistrate in WA who’s not averse to sentencing offenders to Buddhist meditation; and for the few he picks, it actually works.

There are those who work with me in civil rights and criminal justice who’ll be horrified by my advocacy of a spell in the army for many offenders. But I’m tired of debating theoretical perspectives and other people’s prejudices: I’m interested in what works to decrease the number of victims and stops the greatest number of young offenders going on to become what used to be called “old lags”, and LSV does – of the 114 people from the Lower North Island who took part in October, only 29 didn’t successfully complete it (mainly due to injury) and those that did are now all on courses or employed.

While some people already inured to a life of crime will undoubtedly go on causing harm till they reach their third strike, wouldn’t it be great if this election a political party came out with a justice policy that aimed to prevent the creation of new offenders and new victims, rather than futilely boasting how harshly they’ll punish the people on whom they’ve given up?

For my 2c, I support both rehabilitation and early intervention as Rex advocates plus three strikes. We should do whatever we can (within reason) to turn people away from crime. But only some criminals are suspectible to “going straight”, and for those who will not give up on a life of violence, I want the three strikes law in place to stop their victim count from getting even larger.

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