Penal Populism in New Zealand: Meandering further down the fairness spiral

This is one of a series of post election pieces i’m writing over the next fortnight, today I look at one of the more absurd reforms suggested for our criminal justice sector which also appeared on the Sociology New Zealand website.

 

In our most recent election campaign the National Party co-opted a longstanding New Zealand First policy of suggesting we dispatch troubled young men off to military style boot camps, which would have been a somewhat useful proposition if it had worked in the past.

The policy announcement was pilloried by those with experience in youth criminal justice. Criminologists have pointed out that boot camps are the antithesis of evidence-based policy and simply don’t produce outcomes consistent with reducing anti-social behaviour.

Perhaps the most absurd thing about the proposed resurrection of boot camps was that it was floated barely a fortnight after the Labour Party acknowledged issues at a previous camp that operated under their own watch, a camp that is said to have seen horrific levels of abuse of vulnerable young men.

Boot camps are yet another troubling lurch back to authoritarian forms of justice, particularly when disparities in application of the law in the New Zealand’s courts are now so frequent, and so pronounced, that they make a mockery of the basic foundations of what justice is supposed to represent – fairness for all.

Let us not mince words; boot camps serve a very narrow function in this country, taking mostly young brown men off the street and bullying them into making peace with an establishment they often have grown up at odds with. An establishment that wants to trounce the inappropriate behaviour of some and then conveniently explain it away for others.

But that’s just sentencing, the fairness crisis in our justice system is much broader than that, it cuts across the attitudes and behaviours of police and can also adversely affect persons on the basis of class and gender. Nothing exemplifies this fairness crises more than how justice has become a commodity, in some cases strictly available to those who can afford it. Think back to March, 2015 when parents of two teenage children attended the prestigious St Bede’s College acquired an interim injunction in the country’s High Court. The matter? Their children, on their way to a national tournament, had been thrown off the school’s rowing team for riding on the luggage carousel and into a restricted area of Auckland Airport. The parent’s lawyer, a Queen’s Counsel no less, argued that the decision of the school had been hurried and disproportionate. It was therefore inferred that the school’s decision may unfairly penalise the students in a manner that would alter the trajectory of their lives.

Justice Dunningham was swayed by this argument and agreed that there was at least enough doubt about the proportionality of the school’s decision and an injunction was granted on the basis that by not doing so the boys would miss out on participating, a series of events that would therefore be ‘irreversible’ if it was found the school had overreached their authority.

The parent’s behaviour in seeking an injunction divided the country, with most armchair commentators arguing that the kids ‘needed a good boot up the ass’, of course conveniently ignoring that had it been their own children, ones they had seen arise from bed each morning at 5am and diligently train for 6 months, they too might have plead that their sons be given some leniency.

In any event, the kerfuffle of whether the school was justified in standing down the boys, or the judge’s decision in setting aside that suspension there was an even more important narrative obscured from the public discourse; most families simply cannot afford the services of a QC let alone urgent High Court proceedings. And so it begs the question, what would have happened if it had been two young men from the predominantly Māori roll of Huntly College, riding airside on the luggage carousel in transit to the Rugby League Nationals? Could we be confident they would only be given a simple warning by Police? Maybe, but not with any certainty.

It is just as likely they would have obtained a diversion, which would have required both students to present before the court. Would their parents have had the means to seek an urgent injunction in the High Court? Based on the 1B school decile, probably not. And, how many more opportunities do you think would present for those senior students, outside of that tournament? Ditto. Not alot, one can assume. And what about after the tournament, as the two students muddle their way through their final two years of adolescence?

What if one was found driving an unregistered car with a bag of marijuana in one of those ‘random’ stops conducted by Police who seem to always favour plying their trade on the main thoroughfare of Huntly (instead of the similarly sized but relatively more affluent towns of Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Morrinsville)?

Well, he’s already had a warning – isn’t it time he was shipped off to boot camp?

 

TL;DR:  Boot camps don’t work, their function is to signal certain virtues that have nothing to do with fixing the underlying issues.