It’s said by someone who should know better [see her 16-page speech here in PDF] that New Zealand must reconsider its whole approach to imprisonment and to the way we “create criminals.”
That we must consider the view that “imprisonment is a symptom of social failure”; that we must look more at the causes of crime rather then the effect of crime on its victims; that instead of locking people up the justice system should instead “find out why blameless babes become criminals”; that “effective rehabilitation” of criminals has suffered since “leadership of the debate about penal policy has passed from officials and professionals . . . to advocates for victims and safer communities.”
In a complete reversal of cause and effect she asserts that “providing only a prison at the bottom of a cliff is not a solution” because the existence of that prison ensures “criminals will just keep on falling into it.” In a complete insult to all of us she appears to put criminals and their rehabilitation ahead of the victims of crime and safer communities. And in a complete reversal of the principles of justice she wrings her hands on behalf of “blameless babes” who become criminals and get locked up, while failing to even consider what these “blameless babes” have done to get locked up, and to whom.
This is said by New Zealand’s Chief Justice Sian Elias in an address to the Wellington branch of the Law Society. It is not her speaking in a personal capacity – it is our Chief Justice ‘speaking with her robes on.’ It is a disgrace.
“Society creates criminals,” she quotes a mentor approvingly, “society must look at the conditions that create them.” That’s all very well, Ms Chief Justice, but before considering how “society creates criminals,” shouldn’t we – and you – first understand the damage that criminals do the non-criminal members of society. And since you’re the Chief Justice, shouldn’t you at least have some grip on what “justice” actually means?
In that light, I invite Ms Elias to to reflect on why we have a justice system in the first place. Which is to say, if we follow Thomas Jefferson, to reflect on why we institute governments at all. To paraphrase Mr Jefferson:
We hold these truths to be demonstrable in reality: that because the mind is our species' means of survival and full flourishing, human beings are individually possessed of certain inalienable rights, which are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of private property and happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people . . ; that all laws legislated by governments must be for the purpose of securing these rights; that no laws legislated by government may violate these rights . . .
Seems pretty straightforward. Almost self-evident, you might say: that we all have rights; that government’s job is to secure those rights; that all laws legislated by governments must be for the purpose of securing these rights; that the agents of government must be agents of right, not of wrong.
So what sort of things violate our rights then? That’s pretty straightforward too: assault, burglary, fraud, murder, that’s the sort of stuff we want protection from. That’s the sort of thing for which “governments are instituted among people”: to protect us from our rights being violated: to ensure “safer communities” (to use the phrase that soured in Ms Elias’s mouth) – i.e., communities in which you and I are safe from being assaulted, burgled or murdered by “blameless babes” and rehabilitating criminals – and the protection of our most basic rights.
This is the primary purpose of governments, and it delineates by extension the primary purpose of the justice system – which is neither to rehabilitate criminals nor to punish them, but to protect us from those who do us over.
Sure, if the rehabilitation of criminals can make us safer then by all means give it a go. And if punishing criminals by hard labour and long sentences will keep them off the streets and away from threatening our loved ones and our property, then that’s something to encourage. But let’s not overlook the fact that the primary and principled purpose of the justice system is not to reduce the number of criminals, but to reduce the number of victims.
“Our prison system isn’t working,” you say? If it’s keeping at least some criminals off the street, then to that extent at least it is.