"You don't see gangs forming in suburbs like the boring, middle class suburb I grew up in. They form in areas where social and economic deprivation is at its highest."
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that didn't know crime. I had a boringly typical, middle class family and both parents. No association with crime other than being burgled once. Then, I was in a lecture at university and the professor said, there's a dearth of research on New Zealand gangs.
And just at that stage, there were a whole heap of laws going through government targeting gangs. Really intrusive laws, like bugging; a whole raft of them. And the introductory note to the bill said, there's no independent research on gangs. So I thought, we're bringing in all this legislation but we don't really know what we're doing. So with a mixture of incredible ignorance and arrogance, I thought I’d go and study gangs... and obviously gangs are so connected with the underworld and crime.
Some gangs are like a petri dish, with all the big social harms in there all at once - intergenerational poverty, unemployment, overcrowded housing, education, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, family violence... you can see them all in the gangs. You can understand that there are bigger issues.
It amazes me that when you meet a criminal and you hear their backstory, perhaps they've grown up in families with terrible violence, terrible disadvantage and they've really been victims of a lot of things and we can feel sorry for them. But the second they commit that crime, they become something else and we treat them altogether differently. I think rationality and criminal justice are uneasy bedfellows that never seem to have got on particularly well. There's so much good work that can be done in this area.
You don't see gangs forming in middle class or wealthy suburbs like the one I grew up in. They form in areas where social and economic deprivation is at its highest. People join gangs because they don't feel, rightly or wrongly, they've got anything else. They join for a sense of family, particularly when their families have been inadequate or abusive, so they need a substitute. They feel that there's not much in their life that they can be particularly proud of. But if they earn that patch to put on their back, they suddenly become something. They can suddenly put their chest forward and say 'I am something', and we all want that. Most of us want something akin to that. Most of us find that in other elements of life, but again, this is a substitute.
If we could find ways to provide those things, that sense of family and that sense of status in other areas, gangs would disappear altogether. Gangs aren't an aberration of an otherwise healthy society, they’re a symptom that we've got things wrong. And because most people never even come into contact with them, it's so easy to imagine something as so much worse than they actually are. The gangs, like the prisons, once you go in there and start to meet the individuals involved, it's a completely demystifying process. What you meet is just individuals, some of them good, some of them bad, some of them talented, some of them not. It's just like life, isn't it? And again, I think people are afraid of what they don't know, they certainly don't know too many criminals in general; they don't know many gangs.
Gangs exist in prisons, I mean, the reasons you might join a gang are amplified in prison. If you need support and a sense of safety and community, then you turn to a gang to get that. Those elements are very much required in prison for most people, so it's an incredible recruitment ground for the gang.
I think there's a misconception that prisons are somehow easy. I defy anyone who goes to prison to say that it's an easy environment. It's not, it's terrible; very hard. The isolation of the lock up, the fear and having to look over your shoulder. If anyone thinks that they're like hotels, I would argue they haven't been to a prison. You may say that some people have a better imprisonment than everyday life, but that just says something about certain societies and certain communities. If their communities are worse than prison, then we oughtn’t to be reducing the comforts of prison but we should be increasing the comforts of certain communities.
I’ve written a book on the history of gangs in New Zealand – called, 'Patched'. Currently, I teach Sociology and Criminal Justice at Canterbury University. I'm hoping not to just give young people degrees, I want to start a quiet revolution, that they get educated and go out there and change the world. Coming here to get a piece of paper to achieve a job is an awfully low expectation; come here and learn how you’re going to make a difference, how you're going to make your mark on the world. It's a pleasure to be able to have that opportunity. I'm hopeful for the next generation, I’m not entirely sure ours has done particularly well, I think the next one might give it a better nudge.
If there's a measure of failure in New Zealand, I would argue that it's the Māori imprisonment rate. To fix it we’d need to fix social and economic issues as well, since many Māori exist within those low socio-economic areas. So we can talk about things like unconscious bias within the police or institutional racism and these are things we certainly need to address, but we will only be tickling the edges really, unless we address the factors that cause that crime.
Suicide and addiction rates are also higher in Māori populations. It's not a Māori issue, it’s a New Zealand issue we should all be looking to tackle and address. The problem is that we're not at our most compassionate nor our most rational when we discuss a couple of issues: one, there's race relationships around Māori and when we talk about crime we tend to let our base instincts get the better of us there too. So it's a merger of two areas that we're not very good at talking about, but that we absolutely must address as a top priority, because the whole country will be better if we manage to solve that riddle. Not easy, but a lot of problems aren't easy; that doesn't mean we shy away from them.
New Zealand is a highly incarcerated country. We're about 30% higher than England, 35% higher than Australia per head of population and Māori make up 50% of those incarcerated. If Māori were incarcerated at the same rate as non-Māori, the incarceration rate in New Zealand would be low, it would be banal; we wouldn't even be discussing it. Their incarceration rate is about 700, per 100,000, whereas non Māori is around 90 per 100,000; there’s a huge difference. And that is a deep tragedy.
The other interesting thing in New Zealand is the common idea that society is getting less safe, but that’s not backed up by evidence! Crime rates have been dropping since the 1990s as a general trend and certainly the murder rate has decreased, not only in real terms but in per head of population terms; it’s almost half of its peak. It’s compelling data to tell us that society isn't going to hell in a handbasket. It’s just a misconception that life’s more dangerous, because the media tends to focus heavily on crime and justice issues, it’s about 20% of all media reports. And not all crime is treated equally - the most common crimes, dishonesty offenses, are hardly covered, whereas the sensational crimes, which are very rare, are covered greatly.
So it's quite understandable that people have a perception that crime rates are increasing and violent crime is increasing, when in reality, that's not the case. And it's not just academic curiosity that that's occurring, it's actually really important, because it influences how people live their lives and how they think about the communities. These aren’t small matters, how we live. It oughtn’t to be like that, but unfortunately it is.
And when prisons are located far out of town, we lose touch with who the offenders are. And so it just seems like prison will just sort them out, so the community doesn't have any responsibility after we send them to prison, whereas I don't think that's the case. And the other is that we don't tend to give prisoners a second chance; once they've been to prison, it's quite hard for them to come back into society and then getting a job is difficult. So there are certain community attitudes that have to change. And I think we need to get more people volunteering or engaging with the criminal justice system, so they understand and see. And then they'll speak to their friends and then we get a slightly better view of it. So I mean, you know, we've started to build a very, very big prison; it will be the biggest one in Australasia by a long, long shot. Prison isn’t a fix-all and it is incredibly expensive.
We’re certainly not doing something right. But I'm confident that for the first time in a very long time, the public conversation is beginning to change, especially with young people doing protests and getting involved.