We can reduce crime with compassion

By Grace Gordon

There are endless visions of what a caring, compassionate, and connected society looks like. It looks like greater and equitable access to healthcare, warm and accessible housing, education, and employment. It looks like using trauma-informed approaches as a response to harm. It looks like promoting harm reduction approaches to people who struggle with substance abuse. It looks like providing access to education methods that suit the learner’s needs. It looks like funding recreational spaces for all people to connect.

We all want to live in a safe society where we feel nourished and encouraged to reach our full potential and truly flourish. That society is within reach, but we must prioritise what really matters: care, compassion, and connection.

This election year, the ongoing debate about tough-on-crime and soft-on-crime is rearing its ugly head, distracting us from what really matters. Our reactions to crime and violence are dividing us by what we believe is the most effective way to respond to harm. But, the criminal justice system fails us all – victims, perpetrators, taxpayers, and communities – and creates more harm.

For far too long, our approaches to safety have been dominated by fear that restricts our ability to achieve collective and sustainable safety. In a society that is becoming increasingly divisive and disconnected, mistrust, suspicion, and fear of ‘others’ wheedle their way in.

To alleviate this fear, we resort to a criminal justice system that superficially removes these fears. For example, someone experiencing mental distress, substance abuse, or homelessness is viewed as someone to be fearful of. In the past six years, the Police have seen an 87% increase in calls relating to someone in mental distress. This shows how reliant we are on punishment-focused institutions to feel safer.

Our response to violent youth offending in recent months has been driven by reinforcing physical security measures, promoting punitive approaches such as military boot camps for youth, and ostracising and isolating the people engaged in harmful behaviour. In this environment, feelings of fear and anger are heightened.

Many of the people who are the subject of this fear are living in precarious conditions where their basic needs are not met. They don’t have the ability to thrive, flourish, and meet their full potential. People are deprived of resources, wraparound support, and care, and then become trapped in the justice system with limited opportunities to break away from a cycle of harm. People entangled in the justice system are far more likely than the general population to have been a victim of violence, to have a lifetime diagnosable mental health or substance disorder, and to have lower levels of educational achievement.

When safety is approached from a place of fear, our responses to crime are often punitive and exclusionary. This enables a vicious cycle in and out of prison where people are removed from communities and their support networks. Criminal justice institutions feed off our emotions that continue to ‘other’ people, which further entrenches social inequalities. These fear-based approaches to safety do not foster collective and sustainable safety.

A more collective and sustainable approach to safety is to centre care, compassion and connection to the people and world around us. This requires a reallocation of resources and values to ensure that systemic drivers of crime are addressed, while simultaneously strengthening communal care.

This does not deny the fact that harm and crime will still occur, so accountability is important. Effective accountability involves both an acknowledgment of the harm caused and consequences that enable the person to change their behaviour. Accountability is grounded in partnerships and is done with someone, compared to punishment that is done to someone. Restorative and transformative justice processes, which encourage participation and inclusion in justice decision-making, are going to cultivate more fruitful accountability outcomes.

Relationship-building is a core feature of care-based safety. Demonstrating mutual care and compassion strengthens our obligations and responsibilities to the people around us.

To move towards a more caring and connected society, we need to create connections between people with different life histories and circumstances. In a society with large divisions and inequities, social bridging provides a potential antidote.

Grace Gordon is a lecturer in criminology at Auckland University of Technology and an Advocacy Co-Coordinator for People Against Prisons Aotearoa.

This piece was originally published on The NZ Herald at this link.