National’s law and order policy was predictably political, with a crackdown on gangs squarely on the agenda for 2020. Former National Party Minister Tau Henare summed it up pretty well on Twitter:
Im nearly 60 yeasr old, how many times have I seen a Political Party go all in on a #SmashTheGangsPolicy ? Every 5 years or so, usually by the party in Opposition.
All this policy will achieve is a larger prison population and a heftier bill to the taxpayer as a result. Will it reduce crime? No. Prisons are practically polytechnics for crime, so more prisoners means more crime in the future. As Bill English himself said: they are a moral and fiscal failure.
So how can we combat the gangs? Firstly, we need to acknowledge that not all gangs are the same. Some are indeed nasty drug pushers. Some are actively working to clean up their act.
The real question is: how can we reduce organised crime?
Like most wicked problems, reducing crime requires treating the cause of the problem, not the symptoms. Of course, the current situation has been made much worse by Australia exporting its criminals. Perhaps we should respond that we won’t take Australian refugees when their country is on fire and runs out of water, as is inevitable with climate change? However, this foreign affairs issue is not the underlying cause. We need to look even deeper.
Why Gangs Grow
We know why gangs grow. The communities where gangs flourish tend to have high levels of poverty and unemployment. This cycle perpetuates across generations because we don’t invest enough in education to help kids in poor communities achieve similar results to their richer peers.
These areas also often have high numbers of Māori who have been robbed of their land and mana by colonisation. The young men who join the gangs feel angry about that, but more importantly they lack a sense of purpose and community. Gangs give them that. Membership makes the young men feel part of a tribe. A patch may intimidate the public, but it also gives the wearer a sense of mana or pride they may never have felt before.
Mana, purpose, and community are basic human psychological needs. They are fundamental to our mental health. We need to feel like we are important, part of something, and working to achieve something. If these needs are not met within society, people look outside society to fulfil them.
The Link to Mental Health
Meeting these psychological needs is central to TOP’s approach to mental health. Our mental health system has been struggling and while the Government was right to invest more there, we still need to treat the root cause of mental health problems.
Like most health problems, this requires investing in prevention, which means investing in communities rather than the health system itself. Hospitals are really the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We need to build a fence at the top. The majority of people who commit suicide never have any contact with the formal mental health system.
Supportive communities are really important. They can fulfil people’s need to belong, give people mana, and help them feel a sense of purpose. This is where we should be investing.
The trouble is that this investment will look different in different areas. In some places, it might mean funding marae. In others, it might be the rugby club, chess club, dance club. The key is to make sure that struggling communities can offer young people something to do and belong to. In particular, we need to focus on young people who have dropped out of school and aren’t in employment or other training.
How will we pay for it? Given that these measures really fall under mental health, TOP thinks this is where the money raised from legalising and taxing cannabis should go. We could also increase the excise on alcohol to fund it. Alcohol has never been more affordable, and excessive use exacerbates many of the problems we’re talking about here.
The Big Picture
Of course, we also need to invest in helping these communities repair themselves. Our education system must not fail children who are growing up poor. Better yet, we need to make sure none of our citizens grow up too poor. They are, after all, our greatest asset.