OnPoint by Keith Ng

83

Children come first, except when walls come first

This has, as Nandor said, become a race to demonise New Zealand's youth. Not all of New Zealand's youth, though. Only the poorest, most marginalised, most at-risk ones. Yay.

When Clark and Key had their first exchange with SchoolPlus and Fresh Start (boot camp), I asked myself: Are those policies designed to help the kids, or are they designed to make us feel better about them being fucked up? With the “War on Taggers” (coined by the “delighted” Gordon Copeland), the nature of this race has become clearer.

This is not a case of 'children come first, except when walls come first'. Because if it was, it'd be pretty daft. $6m over three years, plus the attention of 250 police officers seems like a lot to be spending on walls.

But as Copeland's catch-phrase imply, this is not about the tagging, but about the taggers. It was touted as a national strategy, and it was launched by Helen Clark. This is a PR set piece designed to demonstrate to the country that Helen Clark is Doing Something. Doing Something about what? Oh, you know, those kids.

This is about removing the most visible evidence that those kids exist and ensuring that the community feel protected from them. But are the community's fears well-founded?

John Key had kicked off the game with his claim that “violent youth crime is at an all-time high”. It is. But violent old people crime is at an all-time high, too. Violent crime for every age group over 13 is, technically, “at an all-time high”, and the fastest growing group of violent offenders is... wait for it... those in the 51-99 age group.

Average annual increase in violent crime apprehension rate since 1997:

14-16 year-olds: 2.6%
17-20 year-olds: 2.75%
21-30 year-olds: 1.33%
31-50 year-olds: 3.54%
51-99 year-olds: 3.59%

Young people still commit far more violent crimes than people over 30, but the increase in violent crimes isn't specific to youth – it's happening across the board. Youth crime as a whole, on the other hand, is actually decreasing. 2006 saw the lowest number of police apprehension for youth offending since 1995. When the change in population is taken into account, that's a 17% decrease over ten years.

It means that the increase in violent crimes committed by youth isn't part of a youth crime wave, it's a part of the increase in violent crimes.

And the increase in violent crimes is questionable, too. The biggest changes in violent crime rates occurred in mid-2005 – when the Police changed over to the new National Intelligence Application database.

An independent report in 2006 found that the level of recorded crime shot up dramatically after 1 July 2005. Violent crimes, which was 3% higher than the previous year, suddenly jumped to being 10% higher. But if there was a real surge in violent crimes, it didn't show up in 111 calls or ACC claims.

The report concludes that “the increase in recorded crime is not primarily driven by an increase in actual criminal incidents, but by different recording practices associated with a new computer system.” While there is evidence that the actual incidence of violent crimes is on the rise, it's probably a smaller increase than the raw figures suggest.

(This research was done for my new column in the Herald on Sunday, a nice little fortnightly Fisk-a-thon. The second one will be coming out on Sunday, and should be available online.)

I appreciate that people have a right to be safe, for their property to be safe, and for them to feel safe. But the cost here is very high. Less tagging may occur, but more youths are going to be brought into the criminal justice system for longer periods of time. Youths who are already marginalised will be pushed further out. They will spend more time and effort evading and confronting the police. They will be even easier pickings for gangs.

And for what? Walls?

(Check out Kim Ruscoe's interview with a group of taggers for the weekend Dom.)

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The cops just can't get a break, can they? Even as they scoured the country for the medals, a lawyer picks up the phone and finds the thieves in a few weeks, then negotiates their return with the help of a reward put up by a Brit and an American. Their only success, it seems, was managing to not stuff everything up. At least the lawyer was an ex-cop. But if they don't catch the thieves, this would be a complete downtrou for the police. The obligation, as I understand the law of downtrou, would be on Howard Broad.

Fantastic story, though. I hope Comeskey writes a book, or at least a screenplay.

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