Speaker of the ACT Legislative Assembly Shane Rattenbury writes:
One of the things you learn in politics is to try and look past the headline and delve a little deeper, especially when it comes to statistics.
I remember one debate in the Assembly when a Liberal Member was railing about the latest crime statistics. They showed that 52 per cent of all crimes in the ACT were being committed in the Woden and Tuggeranong police areas, clearly suggesting residents of southern Canberra were being subjected to a crime wave. Yet when I dug out the maps behind these statistics, it turned out that these two police areas covered every suburb south of the lake, including Fyshwick and Oaks Estate. So 52 per cent of the crimes in Canberra were being committed in about half of the city. Suddenly the figure was a lot less remarkable!
The Canberra Times’ front page story on the weekend focused on the 12 families being held responsible for 25 per cent of property crime in the ACT. Although the figure itself is startling, the really interesting (and positive) element of the story was buried a little deeper.
Recognising underlying social and economic realities, ACT Police have assigned a case officer to help the families who have become reliant on the proceeds of property crime. Their role is to help families’ access employment opportunities, educational programs and health benefits, and break the cycle of poverty and disengagement.
This is a smart approach to dealing with crime and really is policing at its best. It has the potential to actually prevent crime and address the underlying root causes.
Because many property crimes are committed to provide an income, prison and the formal legal system only reinforces their social exclusion and increase the likelihood they will need to reoffend.
Instead of continuing this cycle of reoffending, the case officers will be offering them a way out.
This is not about being soft on crime. Having your house burgled is unpleasant, frightening and invasive and we must take all reasonable steps to stop it from happening.
What these statistics reveal, however, is a challenging question to us as a society – what actually is the best way to prevent crime? Do we take a knee-jerk, law-and-order-type response and simply call for tougher penalties, or do we take the harder road of trying to break the cycle?
It seems to me the first option simply keeps us, and the perpetrators, on a treadmill. The Canberra Times paraphrased Chief Police Officer Roman Quadvlieg as fearing that “some of the group of … notorious offenders were born in to a life of crime because their families had been left behind by the welfare system”. Is sending such a person to prison going to change their behaviour, or is it just time in the sin bin?
The alternative option is about trying to overcome social, economic and cultural inequalities, and ultimately reducing the level of crime. To their credit, ACT Police have chosen this more sophisticated response. Hopefully, Canberra will be a better place as a whole because of that choice.