The Police (and pretty much everyone else) Know how to Prevent Crime, Why Don’t the Politicians?

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

It was nicely done really; Judith Collins neatly deflected the question posed by a delegate at a Police Association’s Conference about when the government was going to start addressing the causes of the crimes, notably child poverty. She repelled that pretty brave question by simply saying child poverty was not the Government’s problem to fix.

The following week the Government announced it would be spending $1billion to provide 1800 additional prison beds. While that is a one off cost, it also costs $92,000 to house each prisoner per year, so the on-going cost will be over $150m. Labour also announced it would be funding 1000 more frontline police at a cost of $180m per year.

This is all ambulance at the bottom of the cliff stuff. No-one has attended to what that member of the Police force was saying; deal with low incomes and low opportunities in childhood and you don’t need to spend billions on new prisons, or constantly have to fund more frontline police.

Let’s look at what the evidence has to say.

Low Incomes & Few Opportunities in Childhood Leads to Crime

Children from low-income communities are both more likely to perpetrate and be the victims of crime.

Incidence of violent / property crime for 15-21 year olds are significantly higher for those from more deprived backgrounds. Young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are responsible for approximately 49% of officially reported youth crime (and 28% of self- reported, i.e. actual crime).

It is unlikely that merely lacking money directly leads to a child committing crime. Rather, a child who grows up poor is more likely to be a low achiever in their education with more behavioural and or mental health issues, and it is these factors that influence their likelihood of running up against the criminal justice system.

There are nearly 20,000 children with a parent in prison, and statistics show that those children are more likely come from poor communities, have poor education outcomes and end up repeating the cycle of crime. There is a strong relationship between having a family member in prison as a child and ending up in prison as an adult. In one study in New Zealand, around half of prisoners had family members in prison when they were growing up, and it is estimated that in New Zealand around 2% of children have a parent in prison at any one time.

The statistics show that life for children who have a parent in prison is pretty grim. They are more likely to experience a lack of resources, their family is more likely to be dependent on a benefit, they struggle behaviourally and at school, and have poor health. In such circumstances it is hard to see how the children of prisoners in New Zealand have much opportunity to escape a cycle of poverty and crime.

Statistics New Zealand data shows that while there have been reductions in youth crime appearances in court overall, the gains have been mainly for European/Pakeha children. In 2013/2014 European children made up 27% of youth court appearances (falling from 33% in the 10 years since 2004) yet Māori children went from 45% to 57% of all youth court appearances. While the absolute numbers of appearances for all ethnicities have gone down, both apprehensions and appearances in court show a serious overrepresentation of Māori young people. Low income is noted to be a key factor in the criminal offending of young people.

Young People with Low Incomes are More Likely to be Victims of Crime

Children are far more likely to be the victims of crime than they are to be the perpetrators. On average each year in New Zealand, 12.5 children (aged up to 18) die as the result of assault. This is high internationally. The Child and Youth Epidemiology Service reports that hospitalisation for abuse is eight times greater for children living in poor communities compared to those in the least poor.

When asked, 14% of young people reported they had witnessed adults hitting or physically hurting another child in their home in the last 12 months, while 7% had seen one adult hit or injure another Reporting witnessing violence in the home was more common if young people lived in a poorer community

Investment in the Early Years Prevents Crime

Instead of competing in some sort of bizarre race to the bottom with the United States for the most number of people incarcerated per head of population, we need to attend to what works to prevent crime.

While the idea of scaring young people out of crime (boot camps, prison visits etc) might have popular appeal, it is a total failure as it has been found to increase the probability of crime. What does work is reducing the stress on low income and families and providing families with sufficient material resources to ensure their kids have opportunities to thrive.

As we discuss in our book ‘Money Works’ (due early 2017), increasing the incomes of low-income low opportunity parents using unconditional cash assistance reduces children’s likelihood of engaging in criminal activity. Yes giving parents more money, and trusting them to identify where the pressure points in their family life are, improves both the economic position of a family and reduces stress (the key pathway between poverty and poor outcomes for children).

A substantial body of research supports unconditional cash assistance in countries similar to New Zealand. Just one of the studies from this body of evidence was a “natural experiment” called the “Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth” in western North Carolina. In this experiment profits from a casino built on an Eastern Cherokee reservation were distributed to some but not all families in the local community (tribe members received about US$4000 per adult per year). Almost overnight, the receipt of the casino profits moved some of these children (who coincidentally had been researched since birth) out of poverty.

The children and their families lifted above the poverty line experienced remarkable changes in well-being compared to those families who were not lifted out of poverty. One of the many changes was the families’ involvement in crime. Those parents who received cash had fewer interactions with the criminal justice system (fathers were 50% less likely to be arrested) and children were 22% less likely to be arrested as teenagers; parents had better mental health, and parented more positively. These improvements were greatest for the poorest families. The authors of the study concluded that ‘Overall, the results indicate that parents in households with additional incomes make better choices in their personal behavior and with regard to criminal behavior.” As this study shows it is the lack of income and stress that causes poor decision-making, not the other way round, as some people falsely believe.

In a world where cash confers choice & opportunity why deny it to low-income families?

As we have explained before, additional (and unconditional) cash allows low-income parents to provide fairer more equitable opportunities for their children. It does so partly because it acts as a tool to alleviate stress. No families have exactly the same problems, types of financial pressure and stress in their lives, so it makes little sense for Governments to prescribe to all low-income families how to improve their lot through assistance laden with behavioural conditions.

Cash also protects children from the negative biological impacts of poverty related stress (which include less than optimal brain and immune system development). Cash will not solve the problem entirely, but it is an extremely cost efficient and wide ranging compared to the targeted solutions that are currently favoured.

Politicians in denial of the evidence

Why don’t politicians get the link between few opportunities in childhood and a life of crime? Why are they determined to avoid admitting that investment in early years is a much better spend than on prisons or policing later? Even Bill English has called prisons a ‘fiscal and moral failure’. While Minister Collins might claim that spending on prisons is ‘planning for the future’ it is just the inevitable outcome of poor policy and failing to attend to what works.

It is getting utterly farcical. First there is a refusal by Government to admit low incomes in childhood are a real problem, then a claim that we can’t measure it, then that there are no good measures anyway, then that we can’t set a target to reduce poverty and finally Mrs Collins claiming it is not the Government’s problem. It is like watching a toddler refuse to own up to eating the cake despite the crumbs all over their face: deny, deflect, blame.

Invest in the Future not Prisons or Police

If Governments really want to invest in the future, prevent children from engaging in crime, relieve the stress in families and reduce parents interaction with the criminal justice system then spending $1billion a year on low income families with children under 5 seems a pretty good place to start.

The Police (and pretty much everyone else) Know how to Prevent Crime, Why Don’t the Politicians? was last modified: October 26th, 2016 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.