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Marriage Equality: Insensible Sentences?

Tue 22 Jan 2013 In: Comment View at Wayback View at NDHA

Unfortunately, Garth McVicar of the conservative populist "sentencing severity" organisation Sensible Sentencing Trust has definitely ventured into the twilight zone this time, by alleging that marriage equality will lead to 'increased violent crime.   It's not the first time that SST has been the victim of adverse publicity. One former SST associate, former ACT List MP David Garrett, was an element in the centre-right party's descent into factional chaos during the Key administration's first time, after he was disclosed to have engaged in identity fraud involving a long-time deceased infant, although McVicar made excuses for him then. SST was also dumped from the ambit of the Charities Act 2004 after the Charities Commission determined that it was actually more of a lobby group than a charitable organisation back in 2010.    After that point, the organisation was forced to split into two organisational divisions- one, SST proper, was a lobby organisation, while the Sensible Sentencing Charitable Trust was formed to serve an educational function.   According to its website, the SST exists for the purpose of enacting greater severity in criminal justice policy terms. Its stated objectives include tougher parole conditions for violent offenders, insuring that violent offenders receive the maximum available penalty under the Crimes Act's directives, and insuring that repeat violent offenders get cumulative sentences for their crimes.   All of which strike one as quite populist objectives, and it is also true that one of the criticisms of SST by the Charities Commission was that the organisation had failed to demonstrate any factual basis behind its assertions that greater sentencing severity would lead to reduced violent offending.  Still, there is nothing in the policy prescription above to indicate that it is a social conservative organisation.   Unfortunately, though, that is what it seems to be. It sided with fundamentalist probelting campaigners in 2006-7 during their opposition to the passage of Sue Bradford's parental corporal punishment of children ban bill, despite the probable relationship between dysfunctional and abusive behaviour and violent crime.   Should this really surprise us, though? Even if McVicar initially applauded Phil Goff's populist tenure as Police Minister during the Clark administration and took a nonpartisan role back then,  the authoritarian and populist stance of his organisation may naturally result in its alignment and possibly, overlapping membership with Christian Right organisations when it comes to stances on social issues. Back in the late seventies, British sociologist Stuart Hall identified  criminal justice populist organisations and media coverage as key elements in the matrix of political undercurrents that led to the eventual election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. More recently, Victoria University John Pratt has devoted greater specific analysis of what he describes as 'penal populism.'   What does this have to do with LGBT rights? It would explain several unfortunate tensions that have arisen between SST and LGBT communities. One would have thought that hate crimes legislation would be amenable to SST's agenda, but it has remained silent on the matter. David Garrett opposed provocation defence repeal during his tenure as ACT's criminal justice spokesperson, although McVicar did comfort the parents of Sophie Elliott after her brutal murder.   Unfortunately, he has not been present at cases like the trials after the equally savage murder of Stan Waipouri in Palmerston North and the recent  killing of Phillip Cottrell in Wellington, despite the trauma evidently experienced by Cottrell's family after the mitigated manslaughter verdict in that case.  One cannot help but wonder if some victims of violent crime are more 'victimised' or 'deserving" than others within McVicar's conservative worldview.   And does harsher and severer sentencing practise actually lead to deterrence from violent crime? That contention is strongly contested by rehabilitation-oriented "Rethinking Crime and Punishment", which argues that punitive criminal justice policies risk further brutalising violent offenders who probably experienced brutal, violent, abusive and dysfunctional upbringings and need psychotherapeutic counselling and intervention to turn around their pattern of offending, incarceration and further offending. Rethinking argues that restorative justice may work in confronting the offender with the human cost of his or her behaviour.   Finally, where did McVicar get his ludicrous assertion that same-sex parenting contributes to violent crime from?  It seems to have been slammed across the blogosphere, from Kevin Hague to YourNZ to The Handmirror to Kiwiblog and Whaleoil on the centre-right, but not much is forthcoming about the source of this claim.   It sounds as if someone has steered him toward the shoddy and discredited pseudoscience of Paul Cameron, US Christian Right homophobe source of unsubstantiated  multiple poorly designed studies that allege that homosexuality is the fount of all vice and social dysfunction.   In his submission to the Government Administration select committee, McVicar mouthed rhetoric about 'further decay and erosion of the traditional family that society has been founded on' and 'essential basic morals and values that have lasted for centuries.'   Commendably, the Sunday Star Times was quick off the mark in refutation of McVicar's claim, enlisting the assistance of Auckland University criminologist James Oleson, who suggested that poverty, alcohol and drug addiction and abuse, educational failure and marginal or absent regular employment opportunities as well as dysfunctional and abusive families of origin were likelier real causes of violent crime.   This was a foolhardy move by McVicar. One wonders whether he will survive as SST spokesperson after this outburst, and whether the sentencing severity lobby will split after this ill-advised spiel against marriage equality.     Recommended: Kirsty Johnston: "Lobbyist links gay marriage to crime rise in NZ" Sunday Star Times: 20.01.2013:   John Pratt: Penal Populism: London: Routledge: 2007   Rethinking Crime and Punishment:   Greg Herek: Rebuttals of Paul Cameron:   Stuart Hall et al Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order: London: Macmillan: 1978 Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques: The Politics of Thatcherism: London: Lawrence and Wishart: 1983.   Not Recommended:   Sensible Sentencing Trust:   Craig Young - 22nd January 2013    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Tuesday, 22nd January 2013 - 11:07am

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