Them or Us?

Phil McCarthyPhil McCarthy
Director
Prison  Fellowship of New Zealand

In their 2013 book ‘Contrasts in Punishment , John Pratt & Anna Eriksson explored the differences between the Criminal Justice approaches of ‘Anglophone’ countries (specifically England, Australia and NZ) and those in Scandinavia.

Scandinavian counties are less punitive and have far lower rates of incarceration than NZ and systems like ours.  The authors argue a root cause is that Nordic countries are, and have for centuries been, more inclusive.

In our systems, we regard the individual as the problem.  The primary problem is that the individual has offended, must be held accountable for his or her actions, with punishment of the deviation the priority of the justice system.

Nordic counties have a much greater sense of collective responsibility, of the common good.   When a rogue local terrorist in Norway went on a rampage in 2011 killing 77 people, there was outrage, as there would be here.  But I understand the primary concern in the mass marches that followed was, not to see the perpetrator lynched, but primarily to ask “what is wrong with us, that we could have generated this person”.  Retail chains moved to withdraw violent video games from sale.

I am not saying these societies are perfect.  There were anti-Muslim attacks.  We understand from Swedish friends that the pressure to conform in that society can be suffocating.  But the ever-increasing trend in western societies to exclude, to ban, to scapegoat, or as Katie Bruce from JustSpeak said last week in this blog, to build walls, is even more troubling.

It’s not increasing crime rates that form the public views that drive Politicians to expand the Police and Prison systems, but our fear of crime, usually out of all proportion to the reality.

As I think Ces Lashlie used to say, if we don’t see the offenders our society generates as our problem, if we continue to label them as ‘other’, the ‘them’ to our ‘us’, we will continue to fail to deal to the real causes of crime: The typical NZ prisoner is disproportionately poor, illiterate, mentally unwell, drug and alcohol addicted, and  a victim of childhood abuse.  And of course, systemic racism means that Maori are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers.  These are the causes of crime and the drivers of our appallingly large prison population!  These are our issues.

It’s fear that drives the exclusionary response in NZ as much as in Trump’s America.  As the leader of a Christian organisation, it appals me that white US Evangelicalism; a  syncretic blend of individualism, nationalism, militarism and US exceptionalism accompanied by a very punitive reading of the Bible, is aiding and abetting the racist, fearful and exclusionary policies that are emerging over there.

The Gospels I read proclaim a very different set of values:  Service of the other; a justice that restores; repudiation of judgement; forgiveness and reconciliation; unity and peace, involvement and inclusion.  If we’re serious about reducing social harm, if we want to develop the kind of society that acknowledges and faces its real social issues instead of simply locking away the symptoms in ever increasing numbers, those are the values we need to embrace.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

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