Brian Edwards Media

On Punishment and why we Kiwis can’t get enough of it.


In an article in yesterday’s Sunday Star Times on the role of imprisonment in the rehabilitation of offenders, Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar expresses the view that the first priority of sending people to prison is to keep the public safe. It’s a relatively moderate statement from McVicar, expressing perhaps the philosophy behind the excellent work done by the Trust on behalf of the victims of crime.

A more characteristic expression of McVicar’s understanding of the proper function of imprisonment appears elsewhere in the article: His “second priority” is punishment:

“We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about that. Criminals need to be punished for their actions.”

Mr McVicar is, according to the article, worried that our country’s prison policy is more concerned about helping inmates than punishing them. And he’s not a believer in rehabilitation:

“If you can rehabilitate those people then you would have rehabilitated them long before they were imprisoned. The problem is when they get to prison they’re not long off becoming a career criminal… We need to focus on punishment and then rehabilitation once they’ve served time.”

But what sort of punishment? After a fact-finding visit to the United States some years ago, Mr McVicar declared himself impressed with the tent prisons and chain gangs of shackled inmates he’d seen there. Nor was he averse to capital punishment if it could be shown to be a deterrent to homicide. (It can’t. Violent offenders do not dwell on the consequences of their actions.)

What seems to escape McVicar’s notice is that being sent to prison is of itself the punishment for having committed a serious crime. The essential nature of the punishment is loss: loss of freedom, loss of choice, loss of income, loss of privacy, loss of dignity, loss of pride, loss of family, loss of friends, loss of affection, loss of love. And many other losses. But none of this is enough for Mr McVicar who believes prison should be nothing but punishment, and rehabilitation an afterthought “once they’ve served time”. The irony is that his approach is little better than a recipe for reoffending.

And here’s an interesting question for Mr McVicar to ponder: Why is it that Maori make up only 15% of the general population but 51% of the male prison population and 58% of the female prison population? And why are the proportions for the much smaller Pacific Island population not dissimilar?

Bad blood or social deprivation? Well, we already know the answers which are common to colonised peoples around the world: poverty, unemployment, poor housing, educational underachievement, intergenerational violence, alcohol and drug abuse, racism. Take out the racism and the picture is similar for the European prison population.

You could argue, couldn’t you, that the punishment that prison represents is for many inmates really just an extension of the punishing circumstances that already characterised their life experience. I’d argue that.

So the concept of a system that requires further  punishment for offenders before attempting to rehabilitate them seems to me not merely deeply flawed but totally counterproductive. Dealing with social deprivation and with the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in this country might be a better approach.

Still, Garth is by no means a lone voice in New Zealand. We’re great punishers here. Can’t get enough of it, if the truth be told.

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  1. Mr McVicar needs to emigrate to the US. He is an abject unconscious fool, and will fit in with the gun lobby wonderfully well.

  2. “Dealing with social deprivation and with the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in this country might be a better approach.”

    Sadly, culture war-piggery is a major obstacle, and sometimes I’m left with the impression that slogans like “throw away the key” are a euphemism for the N-word. Lee Atwater, one of America’s nastiest spin doctors, basically admitted as such.

    Would Garth McVicar – now invariably associated with Colin Craig – be as vocal as he is, if most of NZ’s prison inmates were white? Is there a darker-skinned equivalent of romanticised crims like Chopper Read, Ned Kelly, Al Capone or George Wilder? Or is such an equivalent almost always portrayed as more dangerous thana nuclear warhead?

    In America at least, racism is cited as one of the real reasons for the War on Drugs, if a recent book on the matter is to be believed.

  3. It can’t. Violent offenders do not dwell on the consequences of their actions.

    Careful, Brian, or the entire creaking edifice of the “personal responsibility” cult may come crashing down. ;-)

  4. I get so tired of throwing study after study at these people and having them bounce off a thick barrier of smug self-righteousness that I’ve given up.

    But I will tackle you, Brian. The “Sensible” sentencing Trust does not do “excellent work … on behalf of the victims of crime”. They are emotional vampires who fuel the understandable desire of some (but by no means all) victims of crime for revenge. But no amount of revenge will heal, as families of victims whose killers have been executed will attest.

    Have a look at the Forgiveness Project and in particular read the stories of victims who’ve been supported by an organisation which helps them let go of the negative emotions associated with being a victim (

    While there are somewhat rational (but nonetheless, mostly wrong) people associated with the SST – and I include David Garrett, with whom I’ve had many a debate, in that – McVicar is not one of them.

    He has a poor grasp of the reasons the law isn’t more to his liking, and no understanding of human psychology – of either offender or victim. The one thing he is, is an effective lobbyist but even then he is merely being used by figures such as Judith Collins to ensure that there is an appearance of community support for inhumanity in our penal system.

    Anne Tolley, on the other hand, invested much more money in education and drug treatment programs, recognising that a prison sentence is usually the only motivator that will make some people decide they need rehabilitating. And without that realisation, all efforts are doomed to fail. Sometimes it’s the first incarceration, sometimes it’s the tenth, but few criminals go to their graves as old men or women still offending.

    If we are to do the best we can to keep society as safe as possible, we must be ready to seize that opportunity whenever it presents.

    To refuse to do so, as McVicar wants us to do, is to condemn more people to become victims. And a cynical man might perhaps venture that that is precisely what an emotional vampire would want.

  5. Surely the thought that you will, almost certainly, be caught and receive more than a slap on the wrist would be a deterrent to most would be criminals. Apply this idea at an early age; don’t let them think they can get away with it.
    Added to dealing with deprivation etc. it might just work.

    • That works for you and me. Many criminals are akratic, and so it will never work for them.

      • 5.1.1

        I don’t think Maori and Pacific Islanders are several times more akratic (new word – ta!) than the rest of us so if we can deal with deprivation and put the fear of God in budding crims we may get somewhere.


          Dealing with deprivation may work. As for putting the fear of God into youthful criminals, the institutions of the state were much harsher in my youth and it doesn’t seem to have worked then (schools frequently administered severe beatings).


            I may be viewing through rose-tinted spectacles but back in my youth, more years ago than I care to remember, and in the UK, I don’t recall the graffiti, the drug use, the violence, the petty theft, the mindless vandalism or, at least, not much of it. Back another generation to my late father’s youth and a policeman could clip a young miscreant’s ear and send him on his way. He wouldn’t tell his father for fear of getting another clip around the ear.
            Some people behave themselves because they believe it’s the right thing to do; others need the fear of retribution and the more likely it is that they’re caught and punished the more likely they are to behave.
            The last public hanging in my home town was of a boy for stealing a pocket handkerchief. He would done it hundreds of times before and melted into the crowd. He thought he was uncatchable. If he’s been caught the first time and given a thrashing, he probably wouldn’t have done it again.


              There are “naughty” boys and boys who have to resort to crime to survive. A beating may make the “naughty” boys stop – maybe – but someone who is looking at day to day survival isn’t going to be worried about the potential risk of hanging some months away – if they don’t get food now than they won’t be alive months from now.

              • I doubt if very many crimes committed in New Zealand this year will have been motivated by a genuine requirement to either commit, or starve to death. Your point is totally, utterly, invalid crap.


              Most people ‘behave’ themselves because ‘approval’ is more desirable than loathing.
              However, people who seek approval of their peers, perhaps because their parents are too claustrophobic, unreliable or punishing, are more vulnerable to challenges of antisocial behaviour.
              Stealing, lying, casual assault, tagging and vandalism are typical juvenile experiments testing authority, sometimes carried forward to old age. Lots of pensioners steal and lie. I bet you know of some …

              “The Good old Days” is a failed experiment, and Garth McVicar et al. with it … by all means fight hard for victim support and compensation.
              Immerse criminals a structured way of living and achieving social acceptance as an antidote to the flawed model of their life experiences.

              Punishment? Thomas Keneally said that the Irish are great punishers, retribution runs hot in their veins, wired into their DNA from centuries of persecution and starvation … add Spanish blood to that equation, and look hard at oneself in the mirror and ask: Do I really want to make this foolish boy suffer?

        • The ‘fear of God’ certainly works when it is the worst thing you’ve ever experienced (ie. from a loving middle class home). Not so great when you are ‘budding crim’ from this country’s underclass.

          In the later case, the chances are all you have ever known is ‘the fear of God’ (and abuse, and neglect, and grinding abject poverty, and the absence of simple love).

          When a child is already broken, rather than making them whole, punishment administered by an unforgiving state tends to just sharpen the edges for later.

  6. The ethnic breakdown of the figures for prisoners in NZ is something which should have the spotlight put on it, but another set of statistics which is never mentioned is the rate of prisoners whom, due to conditions such as dyslexia have problems in the area of literacy and numeracy. Therefore, when rehabilitated, and during the transition back to ordinary life in the care of such admirable voluntary organisations as PARS if their families are unable to help, how are the very high numbers of prisoners unable to read the Jobs section in TradeMe, or unable to compose and send a job application email in English expected to get a job? Going back to their school days, in high-schools students with disabilities such as Downes Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy are very well catered for, but students with ADD, ADHD, or Dyslexia are ignored and mainstreamed. They leave school at 16 unable to read and write properly, and are regarded by their teachers as “the naughty kids”. A large percentage of such people end up in prison to be “punished” as you so rightly point out.

  7. Lee,does “akratic” mean rats from Auckland?

  8. Going to the United States to learn about incarcerating criminals is just looking for confirmation of outmoded views that people like McVicar like to label “common sense.” More rational observers have been looking to places like Norway who don’t compromise on rehabilitating prisoners even when they face a mass murderer like Anders Breivik.

    I can only assume that these types of ridiculous organizations operate freely simply because they have a plausibly useful sounding name. Sensible Sentencing Trust, Taxpayers Union, Family First, et cetera.

  9. Many moons back I did a doctorate in criminology. So I claim to know a little bit about crime and punishment.
    I agree with you, Brian, wholeheartedly.
    I remember a Labour minister for corrections pandering to McVicar during the last Labour government taking him on a fact finding tour to Scandinavia with disappointing results. Nothing got into his thick head.
    However McVicar is only the nasty symptom of Anglo-American society, which loves to torture and punish the already downtrodden. That is the issue, which needs to be explored.
    Look at Australia’s latest deportation policy, which is to harsh that even New Zealand objects as long as Kiwis are at the receiving end. Look at the UK’s incarceration rate compared with Europe. Look at the US and you don’t know where to start.
    Compare that with how Norway dealt with Anders Breivik in a matter of fact dignified manner. This actually helped the country deal with it’s unimaginable trauma.

    Have we improved since Dickens’ time ? I am afraid very little.

  10. Brian your “colonised peoples” comment is at the core of the problem. Given the economic principles our society is purported to be structured upon, an honest days work for an honest days pay should be mandatory and made available for everyone. Its not and that’s the real problem.

    Instead we have prisons run by the private sector for profit.

    What next for the so called ‘private sector’…..govt sanctioned ‘bastard executioners’.

  11. The focus needs to be on what works. That requires both experiment and objective and skilled measurement. The primary goal is minimizing harm and cost to the community and the solution must be a mixture of containment, rehabilitation and incentives/sanctions.

    Not simple.

    • Precisely. But attacking the symptom looks catchy on a bumper sticker. E.g. (“Bring back the rope!”, “Take the bikes off the bikies!”, “Chain gangs work!”, “Conscription cures crime!”).

      • 11.1.1

        Basically the problems are far too hard for bureaucrats to solve and should be turned over to the private sector like every other serious and difficult task. Bureaucrats have enough of a challenge in simply paying the bills efficiently and on time.

        • The ‘private sectors’ track record in anything bureaucratically serious or difficult is a dismal fail, so what sort of comment is that.


            Alan’s solution to everything, regardless of the evidence.

            Brian, this half of the duelling duo will stop here.


            Your example is? And of course if Serco fails it will lose its contract and has already lost serious money in penalties. When Corrections fails there are zero consequences. Everything that has happened in a NZ Serco prison has already happened many times in Correction prisons and will continue to do so.

            • What if those in charge happen to think Serco is ‘too big to fail’?


                Then we should elect politicians who think otherwise. Failure and its consequences are essential to a properly functioning private sector.

                • Any ideas? From overseas experience, crony capitalism and the War on Drugs are tough beasts to slay, especially when the 2 of them merge into a mutant monster. Those attempting to expose it all are often ruthlessly smeared.


                  The way Norman, Bradford and Turia took the Greens hard Left into gross ignorance and opposition to private enterprise has been a disaster for political insight and public understanding in this country. Prior to that, ACT and the Greens shared a commitment to social liberalization and open government that could have been nurtured into a force for rational policies and clean separation of competitive private enterprise from Government.

                  We now have an opposition with little credibility who believe the answer to every bureaucratic failure is more bureaucracy. It is hard to imagine a vacuum more susceptible to the development of crony capitalism.


                  Bureaucracies, both private and public, are essential to modernity, Alan. Nobody has found a non-imaginary alternative that actually works.


                  Banks are in the private sector. During the last financial crash private enterprise banks failed and near failed as a direct result of their schemes and management. Now, a few years later, those same banks are joyfully continuing on their merry way. What consequences did they suffer? Are those banks what you mean by private enterprise doing things better?

        • Then again, the track records of Serco in Britain and GEO Group in America haven’t exactly been spotless. And I could also tell you about Judge Mark Ciavarella and the ‘kids-for-cash’ bribery scandal.


          Basically the problems are far too hard for bureaucrats to solve

          So let’s turn it over to private sector bureaucrats, then…

          How about reading some books so that you actually have some clue of what you are talking about?


            Almost everything difficult is done by the private sector where competitive pressure rewards success and penalises failure. Bureaucrats on the other hand succeed or fail politically and most often failure goes unpunished.

            Go start your own business and you might have a clue about the private sector.



                Are you trying to tell us bureaucratic corruption is a private sector problem?

                • No, what I’m saying is that bureaucracy doesn’t have a monopoly on corruption. Especially where crony capitalism happens to be involved.


                  Almost by definition corruption is an ever-present aspect of bureaucracy. It is certainly not an argument against private enterprise which is how the Left attempt to frame it. It is an argument for open government and a free press.


              Almost everything difficult is done by the private sector where competitive pressure rewards success and penalises failure.

              Of course no government bureaucracy could ever organise a manned lunar expedition starting from basically nothing and get it done in less than a decade…

              Did you here about that time the private sector won a world war, purely via the magic of the invisible hand?

              Do you even read what you write before you hit “post”?

              Go start your own business and you might have a clue about the private sector.

              Go read an elementary economics textbook and you might learn about market failure. Until then you just come across as someone in wilful denial of how modern societies work. There’s a reason that every modern society has basically the same economic form.


                Yes, you are clueless Lee:

                The Germans lost WW2 because they were out-manufactured by the US private sector and their own privately owned supply factories were bombed ruthlessly by the Allies in the opportunity provided by Hitler’s disastrous folly into Russia.

                And the relevance of economic market failure to this topic is exactly what?


                  Alan not letting facts get in the way of a good argument only survives so long. The Axis lost WW2 primarily because Germany, Japan were totally out resourced. In plain language the Allies had access to much more raw materials and resources therefore making it only a matter of time before the Axis succumbed.

                  But the private sector certainly loves those big requisition chits from central govt.


                  I think you are agreeing with me, Kat, in your own twisted way. The private sector won the wars and conquered space. The bureaucrats just paid the bills – with our money of course.


          Alan, your dichotomy ‘bureaucrats\private sector’ does not correspond to the real world. Ever since the groundbreaking work of Max Weber over a century ago we have known that bureaucracies are characteristic of large organisations and the question of which ‘sector’ they are in is irrelevant. Some of the most obtuse and rule bound bureaucracies I have ever encountered have been in the private commercial realm. Think insurance companies or utility companies. Others of a highly efficient nature are in the public sector. Compare, for example, the New Zealand Blood Service (with which I am personally acquainted) with the Red Cross which runs blood banks in the United States on a commercial basis and you will soon see what I mean. Properly run a bureaucracy is a very efficient way of doing things. Modern and complex societies would be impossible without them


            A bureaucracy can be efficient at doing something simple and repetitive like collecting blood.

            At innovating and solving hard problems, highly unlikely. The simple point, as already stated, is that private sector failure has consequences and bureaucratic failure does not and may even be rewarded with more resources. Likewise the incentives for successful innovation in the private sector are much more direct and compelling.

            The large private sector bureaucratic dinosaur is always under threat from new competitors especially when they are first to adopt new ideas and technologies. So Weber is irrelevant.


              Just for the record there is nothing simple or repetitive about what the Blood Service does. But that aside, you have missed the point. I was comparing a blood service in one country with another. Our service based on public service values is much more efficient and effective than its equivalent in the United States which is run on a commercial basis


                I’m not in a position to make any judgement on that except to point out that the environments are vastly different and the US is such a big place that I would be surprised if the implementation did not differ substantially in different places.


                  Cannot resist the temptation in seeing that use of the expression “environments are vastly different,” to chuck in ‘charter schools.’

  12. I carry around with me a box of ‘life skills’ tools. When I open the top there is one of those trays which has to be removed before I can access any of the tools below. On that tray is a tool called ‘awareness’. Without it none of the others are accessible.
    In my experiences with the ‘underclasses’ (for want of a better word to describe those likely to end up in jail) they don’t know about ‘awareness’ and thus cannot access anything else. Unfortunately, from the stories on this thread, it appears Garth McVicar can’t either.

  13. I went to prison many, many moon ago it was in Melbourne, there was full employment in the community at large, I applied for and got a job, I worked 7 days per week, about 6 hours per for 3 shillings a day. The average wage was around 11 Pound per work for 40 hours. We were cheap labour. Much of the money I earned was spent on chocolate and tobacco. Work in prison is the answer to the uselessness of prison and it helps enormously in self respect and determination in the aftermath. Many people in to-days society oppose cheap labour in prisons on the general basis that it takes away a job from a worker on the outside.

  14. Some offenders just can’t/won’t be rehabilitated, and for those, there should be no revolving door on the prisons.
    NZ really needs an ‘ADX Florence’-type supermax prison, where the worst offenders are incarcerated 23/7.

    • We already have that. It is called Paremoremo.

    • Some offenders just can’t/won’t be rehabilitated, and for those, there should be no revolving door on the prisons.

      That’s quite expensive in practice. Would you like your taxes raised to support it?

  15. “Violent offenders do not dwell on the consequences of their actions”

    I would think that a quick death would be preferable than spending the rest of one’s life living in a small cell cell with another person, worrying about whether you are going to be stuck with a home made knife.

    • There is nothing quick about being on Death Row. In the US the average time spent is 190 months. That’s 15 years 10 months waiting to be put to death.

      Go on YouTube and watch a few videos of public executions (mostly done in Iran and Saudi Arabia). That is what you are advocating.

      If you still believe in the death penalty after that then book yourself to see a psychologist because you need help.

      This is not a topic for a quick throw away line. Engage your brain in the future.

  16. Many, many years ago, I was sitting in a magistrate’s court, waiting to be called as a witness in a drink-driving case. (A middle-aged businessman, seriously tanked, had demolished two parked cars before swerving to the other side of the road and making a sizeable hole in a brick wall.)

    The case underway when I arrived involved a couple of young men who were alleged to have converted an ancient Bradford van and a late model Jaguar. After hearing the evidence, the magistrate decided that one chap was guilty of converting the van, the other of converting the Jag. And he sentenced them both to six months of periodic detention.

    ‘I hope you have learned a lesson,’ the magistrate said.

    The young man sentenced for converting the Jag just stood there. But the one sentenced for converting the Bradford nodded.

    ‘What have you learned?’ the magistrate asked.

    ‘I should have nicked a Jag,’ the young man said. ‘The punishment’s just the same.’

  17. In the 1960’s criminologist Alan Nixon argued that most attempts at rehabilitation through education or work experience failed, most criminals stopped offending as they aged and matured and in most cases stopped offending by the time they were 35 and in most cases there early offending was against their wastrel, drunk and bogan peers, and often no more serious than a lot of university student drunken destructive behavior. Crime remains partly a young mans occupation cured only by age.
    Immigration of Pacific Islanders and fundamentalists from ethnics and Islamics from India, and parts of the Middle East and Africa has brought into this country people who do not accept or understand Western liberal values and sexual freedom and a soft line is not appropriate for these people who should never have been allowed in and reflect the gormless liberal wet thinking of the Presbyterian establishment of Geering, Hunn, Marshall and Somerville in the 1960s.
    A furthur problem is two thirds of the people who end up in prisons and asylums simply lack the inherited intelligence to succeed in modern society and are inevitably in danger of being as alienated as the Taliban. In most nations the ancestors of these type of people would have died off or been degraded by military service or hard industrial work, but in a soft nation like New Zealand this has not happened where people have been featherbedded in protected and subsidised make work and job creation.
    The criminal problem in NZ is quite serious and judging from recent news film of the criminal robbing gangs roaming South Auckland the military style approach and reintroduction of the death penalty for multiple murder by firing squad or gullotine would not be out of place. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were strong advocated of the death penalty. William Bell and the totally guilty David Bain would be ideal candidates for the death penalty.
    Crime in New Zealand would be reduced if the dumber half of the population had more wild bars, access to drugs and booze in properly controlled 24 hour bars were they could safely dissipate and destroy themselves. Wages for the dumber half should also be restricted to about $20,000 without welfare or social supplement so they are unattractive to women and restricted to commercial sex options the Brave New World option was definitely intelligent and should be regarded as an appropriate option and not a dystopia given Aldous Huxley was pretty much a Nazi Fascist in his early incarantions.

    • 17.1

      Not particularly good satire.

    • In the 1960’s criminologist Alan Nixon argued that most attempts at rehabilitation through education or work experience failed, most criminals stopped offending as they aged and matured and in most cases stopped offending by the time they were 35 and in most cases there early offending was against their wastrel, drunk and bogan peers, and often no more serious than a lot of university student drunken destructive behavior. Crime remains partly a young mans occupation cured only by age.

      Pretty much. You have to admire middle aged criminals – they’re sort of the underworld equivalent of Jack Nicholson and his ever younger paramours.

  18. Here is a good case in point. Punished forever…

    Easy answer: a Zero hours contract !

  19. Brian – your post is like catnip to the red-neckers out there!

  20. This is an interesting article.

    The problem with discussing punishment is defining it.

    Psychology and behaviouralism essentially define punishment as a negative consequence that occurs after a behaviour that reduces the likelyhood of the behaviour occuring again.

    If it doesn’t meet this criteria it is not a punishment.

    If prison increases the likelyhood of reoffending then it is closer in definition to a reward.