When H.L. Mencken famously remarked, “for every complex problem there is a solution; neat, simple and wrong”, he could have been describing Australia’s ‘tough-on-crime’ approach to criminal justice.
Although crime rates have consistently fallen since 2001, the prison population has grown as a result of harsher bail laws and tougher penalties.
In the face of the facts, the mainstream media continues to publish sensationalised and misleading reports of supposed crime waves and a lenient judiciary.
Despite crime statistics and research consistently demonstrating both that overall crime is declining and that members of the public impose more lenient sentences than magistrates and judges when given all of the facts, the populace has somehow been led into believing that crime is out of control and the courts are too soft.
The inconsistency between fact and perception raises questions about the impact of social forces such as the media and government on the public psyche.
Distorted perceptions of crime
A 2007 survey found that only 3.1% of Australians were aware that crime had fallen over the previous 2 years, and only 1% of respondents knew that zero to 9% of crimes involved violence (6%).
The vast majority of respondents mistakenly thought crime was on the rise and that violent crimes made up a large proportion of criminal offences.
Many believe the driving force propagating this misconception is the need for social conformity – to unite the public against perceived common enemies. These ‘undesirable’ groups may come in the form of communists (previously), immigrants, Muslims and/or criminals; creating public solidarity, a perceived need for protection, a feeling we must rely on government to stave off imminent threats.
We turn a blind eye to increasing state powers and the removal of legal protections and civil liberties, in a misguided belief that these sacrifices are for our own good.
By blaming undesirables for the shortcomings of society, governments can absolve themselves of responsibility for social failings – indeed, pointing the finger is an easy yet powerful way of solidifying and validating government, and enhancing state power.
Crime stories account for approximately 35% of daily news articles and, consistent with the motif “if it bleeds, it leads”, coverage is skewed towards violent crimes which are often reported through sensationalised and distorted snippets.
80% of respondents in a 2000 survey saw the crime problem as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’, while 82% admitted basing their views on reports from the news media – suggesting the media has an enormous, often determinative, impact on public perception.
A 2004 BOSCAR report found that media commentators directly perpetuate this ignorance for ratings, citing as an example Alan Jones’ challenge of official police statistics on the basis they are inconsistent with his views.
Conservative politicians typically seek to win votes by proposing ‘tough on crime’ approaches which vilify offenders whilst doing little to address the underlying causes of crime.
Such approaches can be enormously successful at winning votes, as exemplified by Donald Trump’s meteoric presidential rise, which was largely based on identifying and demonising undesirables such as offenders and ‘illegal aliens’, labelling them as a threat to some nostalgic vision of US values.
Mr Trump knew how to win votes through this tried-and-true method, declaring, “This election is a choice between law, order & safety- or chaos, crime & violence.”
But in reality, crimes rates in the US are at historic lows. Moreover, statistics suggest that crime rates amongst immigrants are lower per capita than for US citizens. Nevertheless, Trump has called for “tranquilizing the criminal element,” favouring zero-tolerance policies, longer prison sentences and aggressive policing tactics, including stop-and-frisk policing.
Just as ‘tough on crime’ approaches win popular support, evidence-based proposals put politicians at risk of losing popularity. For example, after former Australian Attorney-General Greg Smith criticised tougher bail and sentencing laws, and pledged to reinstate the rehabilitative function of prisons, he was relentlessly attacked by Ray Hadley and the Daily Telegraph for being a “Marshmallow” and “soft on crime”.
Mr Smith was quickly demoted – removed from his position in a sobering lesson to future law-reformists.
‘Tough on crime’ and dehumanisation
The Don Dale footage is an example of a ‘tough-on-crime’ culture leading to the dehumanisation and abuse of those suspected of crimes – including children.
As prisons minister in 2010, former NT Chief Minister Adam Giles vowed that if promoted to chief minister, he would, “… build a big concrete hole and put all the bad criminals in there,” and tell them “you are not coming out, start learning about it.” He was unconcerned that he “…might break every United Nations convention on the right of the prisoner” in the process.
As chief minister in 2012, Giles claimed Don Dale was a place where kids played “video games” and required “tough love”.
We all know about the abuse that occurred in that institution – which ultimately forced Giles’ resignation.
Talking tough on crime not only fosters a culture of abuse, it can represent a significant obstacle to the implementation of evidence-based approaches which have proven to lower reoffending rates. As Dr Weatherburn from BOSCAR puts it, “Toning down the political rhetoric,” can make way for investments that work, rather than those that simply win votes.
Despite the power of the mainstream media and politicians, communities continue to recognise the importance of prevention when it comes to reducing reoffending.
A 2015 American Civil Liberties Union poll found that 69% of voters – including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats – agreed that communities would be safer with reduced incarceration and increased treatment of mental illness and addiction.
It is hoped Australians will eventually see through media and political misinformation, and demand funding for preventative and diversionary measures – such as justice reinvestment programs – which address the underlying causes of crime and have proven time and again to be successful in breaking crime cycles.
The alternative is continuing to spend billions of dollars every year on punitive measures, which fail to address socioeconomic factors and produce high reoffending rates.