Help! My insanity level is increasing. I’ve just written another letter to the editor of the Northern Territory News:
Its understandable when political flacks and criminal lawyer advocates exaggerate the extent of crime in the Territory. Its both disappointing and puzzling when our sole daily newspaper does so.
Your editorial of 16 July castigates both political parties for having “spectacularly failed to address rising crime rates”. However, NT imprisonment rates are actually just about the highest in Australia, our ratio of police to population is the highest, and crime rates are not rising.
In fact crime rates in every category but one have fallen over the last 6 years. The sole exception is non-sexual assault, but the apparent increase even there is mostly the result of police recording domestic violence incidents as crimes where previously they mostly didnt. Moreover, the rate of assaults actually fell last quarter, no doubt in large part due to more intensive policing in remote communities flowing from the federal NT Intervention.
The problem with perpetuating the myth that NT crime is rising is that it leads directly to ill-considered and potentially counter-productive policies, as political parties strive to outdo each other in demonstrating how tough they are on criminals. Although your editorial asserts that all “right-minded” people should generally support such measures, the Labor governments current proposal for mandatory imprisonment of serious assault first offenders is just such a potentially counter-productive policy.
Crime rates actually rose throughout the duration of the former CLP governments mandatory sentencing regime for property crimes. This may have been partly coincidental, but it was also in part due to the well studied “school for crime” effect. The vast majority of first offenders never re-offend, but imprisoning them needlessly leads some of them to learn new techniques while inside and become hardened criminals where that otherwise wouldnt have happened. Mandatory imprisonment of first offenders in any crime category is stupid policy because it tends to increase crime rates rather than reduce them.
Unlike many civil liberties advocates, I am not arguing against mandatory imprisonment of more hardened offenders. Tough approaches to violent crime are well justified. However, despite occasional media publicity of seemingly anomalously lenient sentences, our judges can actually be trusted to get it right most of the time and are subject to appeal when they dont.
Moreover, amidst the pre-election “laura norder” auction we should all keep in mind that, although there are certainly more things than can be done to reduce crime, we will inevitably continue to have a crime problem a little worse than other parts of Australia. The Territory has a higher indigenous population, a younger average age and higher levels of alcohol consumption. All those factors correlate with higher crime rates.
Update – Dave Bath asks for links to stats:
- March quarter 2008 NT crim stats
- December quarter 2007 (contains last 6 years comparisons whereas the most recent quarterly datat omits them for some reason);
- Year by year 6 year NT crime stats;
- Paper on effects of previous mandatory sentencing regime for property crime;
- Paper on recidivism.
PS – I should also note that those who read the mandatory sentencing paper will see that there are only detailed crime rate statistics for the last two of the four years mandatory sentencing was in operation (1997-2001). Although those years show a clear rising trend (in contrast to the period following abolition), the author notes that the period is too short to draw any reliable conclusions. Nevertheless the overall weight of evidence shows that mandatory sentencing of first offenders had no deterrent effect and if anything made crime worse.