Thursday, 14 July 2016

Gangs and the Politics of Crime Control Policy in New Zealand

A while back I wrote a couple of blogs that contained commentary on the short-sightedness and the condescension that underpins the crime control policy sector in New Zealand when it comes to gangs and development 'effective interventions' (see A Commentary on the Stage Management of Policy Consultation and Policy Development, and Is New Zealand's Policy Sector Evidence-Based, Part 2). Recent events in New Zealand show that another discussion on this issue is necessary. So here goes, and my apologies for repeating some of the points included in the previous blogs:

The Minister of Corrections, gangs and rehabilitation
Recently, the Minister of Corrections in the New Zealand government, Judith Collins, called for a particular individual, Ngapari Nui, to be removed from his position as Kaiwhakamana, a volunteer position through which he worked with inmates in Whanganui prison to assist them to prepare for life outside prisons walls.  Mr Nui had been functioning in this role for five years.

Before I begin my critique on the recent behaviour of Ms Collins, and the Chief Executive of Corrections, Ray Smith, it is worthwhile revisiting a statement I made about the policy response to gangs in a previous blog:

"I have exposed that an unwritten rule of government agencies in New Zealand is that they 'don't work with gangs', which also means that officials cannot be seen to engage with gang members. Of course this rule is unwritten, and its application is, as always, contingent upon specific events and the attitudes of individual government officials. For example, the late, former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was well known for his willingness to engage with gang leaders, and indeed supported the development and implementation of labour schemes for gangs. Similarly, the ex-Minister of Maori Affairs, Pita Sharples was not shy about engaging with gangs, or attending community forums where it was known they would be attending. And of course Te Puni Kokiri, as the lead government adviser on Maori issues, would also seek to engage with gangs to inform the development of social policy; although I wonder how long this enlightened approach to policy development will last at the Ministry now that Harry Tam no longer works there... my guess is, not long. During my time at the Ministry it became increasingly obvious that most of its tertiary educated, middle class Maori analysts had much more in common with their white counterparts at Treasury than they did with working class Maori, and were no more willing to, or better at, engaging with 'hard to reach' communities like gangs or youth offenders. And so, as a general rule Ministers of the Crown and government officials avoid engaging with gang members at all costs, even when, in the case of Ministry of Social Development officials, they are actually tasked with developing and implementing a 'gang strategy'!"

Ms Collins recent behaviour directly mirrors the conduct of the policy sector described above, and the core principle that forms the basis of it; that meaningful engagement with gangs to inform policy is a no no.  The same goes for Ray Smith, Chief Executive of Corrections, behaviour as he moves to support and implement the directives of his minister.

I agree with Harry Tam's recent statement that after being dropped from Cabinet for questionable behaviour, Collins is using the 'ban the gangs' rhetoric and related behaviour such as having gang affiliated individuals removed from volunteer positions in prisons to 'prove' herself again; to show how tough she is. In my view she is doing so at the expense of the delivery of meaningful support for inmates.

In fact, I contend that the Minister's recent, frothy exhortation that the only place for gang members in prisons is as inmates underlines the key argument I made in the blog mentioned above, that the claims of Corrections and other crime control policy shops in New Zealand to be 'evidence-based' is often a load of bullshit. Both the Minister's and the Chief Executive's conduct underlines the political, subjective, rhetorical foundations of the crime control policy sector in New Zealand. And it is important for us to recognise that this is the basis of crime control policy, especially if we are  interested in formulating nuanced understandings of why this particular policy sector does such a shite job at developing and implementing meaningful policies and interventions. For example, it is worth asking why the Department of Corrections can't get close to its stated aims of reducing reoffending rates amongst its 'clients' (10% when IOM was first introduced back in the 2000s, updated more recently to 20% plus... how's that going so far Ms Collins, Ray Smith?  Not even close, eh?). One reason might just possibly be a total disconnect on the part of the Minister, the Chief Executive and the policy arm of the department, from the individuals, whanau and communities they supposedly serve.

And Finally, A Disclosure
Readers should be aware when reading this blog that:
1. I currently have cousins who are members of the Mongrel Mob, and one of my uncles was once a member of the Black Power.
2. I worked for 2 years with a man who is a life-member of the Mongrel Mob, and
3. In my capacity as a policy analyst from 1999-2009 from time-to-time I engaged with gang members while working on projects.

Under the rather 'fluid' definitions of gang member' and 'gang associate' employed by the crime control sector in New Zealand, these 'facts' will come in handy when they contemplate how to respond to this blog (if they contemplate it at all, of course!). If they decided to respond, the tactics will likely be similar to those recently used by NZ Police to block researcher Jarrod Gilbert from carrying out research, by designating me as either a 'gang associate' or as having 'known gang associations', thereby rendering my stance, my comments 'questionable'.

You see, this is how things work in New Zealand's crime control sector: gangs and gang members are the bogie man/woman par excellence. You need to divert attention away from your agency's or your government's crap social policy performance?  Easy. Manufacture a moral panic about youth gang violence as government, police, policy makers and media did in the mid 2000s. Want to block someone from doing critical, independent research? Easy: make exaggerated claims of 'gang association or affiliation' as NZ Police did recently in order to stifle the work of criminologist and social researcher Jarrod Gilbert. Need to appear tough to your colleagues, the media  and uninformed, bigoted, dumbass voters? Not a problem: simply force the removal of men like Ngapari Nui from doing work that you, your advisors and your policy workers could not do, such as work with gang members and inmates to help turn them away from crime and prepare them for reintegration back into the community. Because Ms Collin's, the arrogance, the condescension, and the lack of policy smarts behind your comment that the only place in prisons for gang members is as inmates, is exposed by the very fact that at some point these same gang members will be (drum roll inserted here).... released!

As both Harry Tam and Edge Te Whaiti recently stated on national television in New Zealand, the reason why it is important to enable Ngapari Nui and others like him to work with gang members and other inmates, is because it is much easier for them to do so due to their social and familial affiliations and their knowledge and experience of the gang lifestyle. Based on my experience working in the policy sector, it is nigh-on impossible for the likes of Collins, Ray Smith or any of the crime control policy people currently sitting in cafes on Lambton Quay, Wellington to do the work that Harry, Edge and Ngapari choose to do (and with the ignorance and bias that many of the policy sector hold for Maori, offenders and gangs, nor would you want them to be doing that work).

Few of them would have the first clue how to engage with gang members or their whanau; a fact evident in the woeful standard of policy development across the entire New Zealand crime control sector. Even the most superficial reading of major policy projects undertaken since the late 1990s, such as RObM (Reoffending by Maori), The Crime Reduction Strategy, Effective Interventions and so on, quickly reveals the lack of capability the sector has for engaging meaningfully with 'communities of concern', like gangs, offenders, victims, service providers, Maori per se, etc, etc. 

And so, Ms Collin's and Mr Smith, how about you set aside your uninformed, ideologically-driven, unevidenced, prejudicial response to gangs and the people associated with them, and allow men like Ngapari Nui to get on with the job of helping inmates turn their lives around. How about putting aside your need to score meaningless political points, or to secure your fat yearly bonus, and work to develop effective responses to the significant issues facing our communities. What do you think... time for a mature policy response to gangs in New Zealand? That would be great, but given the current crop of politicians and senior public servants in New Zealand, I won't hold my breath.


  1. Kia ora Juan
    The appalling racism in our laws, courts, and enforcement agencies have made working as a practitioner harder now than ever. Academics and politicians can and say whatever they want but I am hearing the same messages that were delivered 30 years ago, and still our prison population grows. It is out of control and no one is accountable. Your piece is of course accurate and reasoned, the issue is it's not new and one I have heard you put before. As a practitioner Juan I am sick of hitting my head on a brick wall as a academic I am sure you are as well. I don't believe it to be a gang problem but one of colour

  2. Ka rawe ou korero e hoa! It seems bizarre that continuous governments expect a different outcome by continually doing the same thing! Einstein had a theory on that! Mauriora bro!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Kia ora Eugene

      Yep, expecting the different result from the same response is the height of stupidity and sums the gang policy situation up nicely!

  3. Well said! Can't understand why they can never learn from past mistakes! Beggars belief!

  4. Well said! Can't understand why they can never learn from past mistakes! Beggars belief!