By Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon
It may not have been an original line, but it’s a quote popularised by former President Bill Clinton: the first responsibility of Government is to keep its citizens safe.
It’s a political truth I’ve always subscribed to. There are many things any Government can and should do: encouraging a functioning economy, providing good schools and hospitals, giving people who fall on hard times a helping hand – but none of those can be enjoyed if we’re not safe in our own homes and communities.
Gang tensions around the country have thrust the issue of safety back into the spotlight. In recent months gangs have plagued Hawke’s Bay, and the popular Te Mata Peak had to be closed due to a takeover by the Mongrel Mob. More recently in Napier, shotguns were fired during a 40-strong gang brawl in the central business district.
In recent days in Tauranga there’s been an outbreak of what’s been described as “Los Angeles-style gang warfare”, with shootouts and murders occurring.
Gang membership is at a historic high. There’s been a staggering 26% increase in gang numbers in just the last two years, equating to 1400 additional patched gang members around New Zealand.
It’s fuelling a spike in crime, with a 40% increase in the number of victims of serious assault in the last 12 months 17,930 victims, averaging 49 each and every day of the year. The number of active cases of serious harm, that is, serious crimes being dealt with by our courts, have increased by 25% in two years.
It’s true that compared with other parts of New Zealand we’re relatively safer, but we’re not immune from those problems. Canterbury has seen a 16% increase in gang numbers in the last two years.
In the same period the number of people in the Timaru district processed by police for methamphetamine-related offences has increased sixfold.
Every social service you’ll meet in South Canterbury will highlight the problem of meth in our community; it has far-reaching impacts on burglaries, mental health, family violence and other serious assaults.
The Government’s response has been to axe the Meth Action Plan, which redirected proceeds of crime to initiatives aimed at reducing drug dependence, and instead focus on reducing the prison population by 30%. References to “prisoners” have been dropped, and the Government now refers to “men in our care” or “clients”.
Whatever they’re called, when gang members and drug dealers are in the care of our prisons they’re not out in our communities, terrorising neighbours or peddling meth and other drugs to young people.
There are legitimate reasons to want to reduce the prison population. It now costs more than $150,000 a year to hold someone in prison, along with the huge waste in human potential.
But rather than focus solely on arbitrarily cutting prison numbers, the goal should be to cut the number of cases of serious harm.
Ultimately, the thing that should matter is reducing the number of victims and keeping our communities safe.