Has New Zealand Identified the Causes of Crime?

By Ronald F. Pol
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 2/4 |

Completing the Journey to The 5 Drivers of Crime

The term ‘drivers of crime’ was clearly defined by an unnamed Ministry of Justice official in a December 2009 policy paper as "the underlying causes of offending and victimisation". However, that paper itself conflated causation and correlation, by also referring to circumstances merely “associated with” offending (MOJ, 2009a, pp. 2-3). Despite the apparent clarity of definition, the transformative process by which correlation was seemingly replaced with a causative explanation remained uncertain.

A 2010 Cabinet paper referred to the ‘priority areas’ as “risk factors” having a "demonstrated link to" or "direct influence on" crime (Cabinet, 2010, pp. 1, 2), indicating correlation, and consistent with the literature noted above. However, the paper also introduced "initiatives [that] address the drivers of crime" as “working on the causes of crime" (Cabinet, 2010, pp. 1, 2, emphasis added). Likewise in the context of performance measures. Two of the (then) four priority areas (low-level offending, and alcohol and drugs) were referred to as only influencing or contributing to crime. However, the remaining factors (youth conduct and behaviour, and maternity and early parenting) were more assertively claimed as drivers of crime (Cabinet, 2010, p. 2), a distinction apparently reinforcing causal meaning ascribed to the term 'drivers'. A later report co-presented by the Ministers of Justice and Police also characterised the 'drivers of crime' and related programs as "[addressing] the causes of offending" (MOJ, 2011, p. 15, emphasis added).

It was in this inconsistent context that the 'strategic change portfolio' known as Policing Excellence was mentioned at Cabinet, with stated aims "to prevent crime, provide better outcomes for victims,.. and reduce the growth rate of the criminal justice system" (Cabinet, 2010, p. 3). NZ Police quickly took up the challenge, reflecting a government "commitment to a police force that is well-trained, well-resourced and has the legislative authority to tackle the key drivers of crime" (NZ Police, 2009b, p. 4). A comprehensive Policing Excellence change program commenced in late 2010 was joined a year later by a complementary Prevention First operating strategy (NZ Police, 2012a, 2013a), both supplemented the following year with a series of crime rate reduction targets set under the government's Better Public Services program (Cabinet, 2012a).

Notwithstanding the Minister of Justice publicly describing “the drivers of crime strategy” as addressing “the underlying causes of crime” (Power, 2011), there remained some inconsistency how Police expressed the (now) five factors' connections with crime, ie whether by causation or correlation. Alcohol, for example, was noted only as "a factor in most incidents", and the 'drivers of crime' were sometimes referred to simply as "drivers of demand on the criminal justice system" (NZ Police, 2011, pp. 8, 16, emphasis added). NZ Police's 2012 Statement of Intent described the Addressing the Drivers of Crime program as targeting "social factors that contribute to offending" (NZ Police, 2012b, p. 15, note 5, emphasis added). Police failed to mention the program in its 2013 Statement of Intent, referring only to police involvement with an "all-of-government response to organised crime, Youth Crime Action Plan, Children's Action Plan, social sector trials and other Police initiatives". Several of these initiatives, however, were described as "addressing the causes of crime" (NZ Police, 2013b, pp. 13, 15).

Notwithstanding such inconsistencies, the five drivers’ transformation from correlation to causation appeared complete by 2014. The Police Statement of Intent that year described crime prevention activities "targeting its action to the drivers of crime: youth, alcohol, organised crime, dysfunctional families, and high-risk driving behaviours", described as "the underlying causes of offending and victimisation" (NZ Police, 2014c, pp. 19, 34). Similar statements in a series of high-level documents (including the 2014 Statement of Intent, 2014 Annual Report, and 2015 Four Year Plan 2015-2019) reinforced the purported causal connection initially defined in the Ministry of Justice policy paper noted above (MOJ, 2009a).

The 'drivers of crime' phraseology is confused. That is part of the problem. By at least 2014, however, its enumerated factors were repeatedly portrayed as representing the underlying causes of offending. The following section constructively critiques the causal connection asserted by The 5 Drivers of Crime.

The Causality Deficit

This article does not suggest that the constituent elements of The 5 Drivers of Crime are not relevant, significant and meaningful in understanding the criminal environment. They are (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 2010; Hagan, 2011). Nor does it contend that well-implemented policies and activities based on those factors cannot generate positive crime prevention results, or that none of the factors have any causal effect. One such possibility is illustrated below. This section simply contends that The 5 Drivers of Crime as currently expressed does not reflect the underlying causes of offending as it purports, nor does it present a unified theory of criminal causation as its title alluringly suggests.

Enumerating issues relevant to his generation, many of which still resonate today (as evident by 'the 5 drivers of crime' itself), Cantor illustrated the critical importance of distinguishing between correlation and causation:

At different times, different authors have alleged that the basis of crime is to be found in truancy, family background, juvenile delinquency, bad schooling, congestion, broken homes, gangs, the neighborhood, unwise use of leisure time, lack of recreational facilities, feeblemindedness, inefficiency in the administration of criminal justice, economic factors, fire-arms, the inefficiency of prohibition law enforcement, inefficient probation, parole and penal systems. It is conceivable that all or any or several of these factors may dominate or be of significance in shaping the lives of the offenders. It is conceivable, but just how such elements do enter, how the factors are associated has never been satisfactorily demonstrated (1933, p. 1029).

By way of illustration, selecting one of the nominated 'drivers of crime', youth offenders are disproportionately represented in crime statistics (St Thomas of Canterbury College, 2015). ‘Youth’ is a well-recognised risk factor, and young adults are more likely to be involved in criminal offending than other age groups. However, being 18 years old is neither causative nor indicative of criminality. Many young people commit crime. A great many others do not. Policymakers may designate youth offending a priority area for policy development, as New Zealand did in 1992/1993 and 2009/2010, and well-implemented policies may have a positive crime prevention impact. The research conducted for New Zealand’s earlier national crime prevention initiative also indicated that predictive ‘risk factors’ such as age, gender and dysfunctional family relationships contribute to the likelihood of offending, at least in the presence of social, economic and environmental ‘triggers’, but “these factors are not causes of crime” (Crime Prevention Action Group, 1992, pp. 4, 29, emphasis in original).

Illicit drugs offer a more nuanced example from the 'drivers of crime' list. A drug addict described as "a desperate man in need of help" may commit a string of burglaries to pay for his next purchase (eg Hutt News, 2015), suggesting a causative glimmer of truth in The 5 Drivers of Crime. But what does it tell us about higher order criminality? What about the dealer who supplied the drugs? The organised crime group ‘cook’ who manufactured them? The trafficker who imported the ingredients? Or local and overseas representatives of the cartels responsible for exporting vast quantities of illicit drugs? Although listed as a ‘driver of crime’, ‘drugs’ likely has little bearing on the underlying causes of serious offending committed by drug dealers, drug traffickers, and the organised crime groups associated with its trade. Illicit drugs is the product they choose to manufacture, distribute and sell. It is not what causes them to do so. Thus, even when aspects of constituent elements of The 5 Drivers of Crime carry some causal resonance, such as theft and burglary to support drug use, the seemingly self-contained ‘drivers of crime' construct remains largely silent in explaining the underlying causes of a range of higher-order serious criminal activities that create significant economic and social harm.

Moreover, although 'drugs' is presented as an underlying cause of offending, in practice NZ Police has long recognised a more nuanced bifurcated reality. Even before The 5 Drivers of Crime was introduced into operational policing, the Police Commissioner distinguished between "burglaries committed by drug users [and] drug dealing carried out by organised criminal groups" (NZ Police, 2009a, p. 2). After a recent $800,000 methamphetamine seizure, Detective Sergeant McNeill also succinctly differentiated crime caused by drug users themselves ("the ripple effect it causes, the burglaries, the car theft, aggravated robbery") from likely causal factors motivating the offending of drug suppliers: "we don't believe the alleged offenders here are actual users of the drug, this is purely a financial transaction" (Stuff, 2015).

Police appear also to have added 'organised crime' (and 'road policing', and sometimes 'gangs') to four priority areas arrived at by a ‘drivers of crime’ committee process sanctioned by Ministers, but much like the fact of being a youth, the existence of an organised crime group is of itself not a ‘driver’ of crime in a causative sense. It may be said that organised crime groups are responsible for much serious crime. Of course they are. It is what they do. By definition. The suggestion that organised criminal groups cause crime is, however, so irredeemably tautological as to be useless in a criminological context. Identifying a section of society likely to commit crime gets us no closer to understanding "the underlying causes of offending" apparently intended by the term 'drivers of crime'.

A final hypothetical example that traverses all five segments of the ‘drivers of crime’ quintet illustrates the causality deficit of the definition ascribed to The 5 Drivers of Crime. Whether youth members of an organised crime group responsible for distributing illicit drugs have dysfunctional family backgrounds, consume drugs and alcohol irresponsibly, and drive much too fast, is unlikely to have much bearing on the underlying causes of their offending.

These examples suggest that The 5 Drivers of Crime also misses important elements that may arguably be described as causative, one of which is discussed in the following section.

Profit Motive Omission Reveals Gaps in ‘The 5 Drivers’

Money is often described as a key motivator of “rational, calculating crimes” (Coleman, 1992) spanning a broad expanse of serious offending such as trafficking in arms, drugs and people, corruption, fraud and extortion (Brown et al., 2010; Hagan, 2011). Money laundering is also an “inevitable accessory” (Fréchette, 2000) to all large-scale acquisitive offending, “through which to preserve illicitly gained funds while at the same time incentivising the overall profitability of crime” (Gilmour & Ridley, 2015, p. 293).

Money as “the foremost reason” (Stankiewicz, 2015) for engaging in unlawful activity may be drawn from across the spectrum of criminological discourse. For example:

…the commission of crime rests fundamentally upon the economic foundations of [Western European culture]. The nature of the crimes committed reflects this obvious fact. Grand larceny, burglary, robbery, forgery and the various crimes arising out of 'racketeering' are not perpetuated for the sport to be gotten but are committed in order to obtain money... Crime for profit is ... a function of our economic order (Cantor, 1933, pp. 1031-1032).

Studies on the impact of proceeds of crime enforcement also recognise that the nature of organised crime includes "profit [as] the primary motive of such businesses" (McFadden, O'Flaherty, Boreham, & Haynes, 2014, p. 4). Australasian policing guidelines refer to "underlying social and economic causes of crime" (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2012, p. 4, emphasis added), and a recent report on the cost of serious and organised crime records the “relentless pursuit of illicit profit” at the core of offending (ACC, 2015, p. 2). Material gain is fundamental to some of the world's most serious criminal activities, as reflected in the Palermo Convention definition of "organised criminal group":

... a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences … in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit (UN, 2000, p. 5, Article 2, emphasis added).

Similarly in New Zealand, "organised criminal group" includes "3 or more people who have as [an] objective ... obtaining material benefits from the commission of [serious] offences" ("Crimes Act," 1961, s98A(2)). Countless news reports reflect the experience of law enforcement agencies worldwide, such as Europol observing criminals switching between activities: "very lucrative" profits see "criminals who would normally deal with drugs,...[or] other forms of crime [use the] opportunity [to make] criminal profits out of the migrant crisis" (Ganley, 2015).

Money as a possible causal ‘driver’ of crime, and the harmful effects of profit-motivated offending, were also regarded "key messages” by at least one working group in the April 2009 Drivers of Crime Ministerial Meeting. Participants expressed a need for "a wider definition” of criminal drivers in the policymaking process to “include both violent crime as well as the crime that occurs more secretly (eg white-collar crime that is equally damaging to society and families)" (MOJ, 2009b, p. 43).3 As the indispensable companion of white-collar crime and many other serious offences, money laundering is arguably the world's apex profit-motivated crime. It supports, enables and perpetuates profit-motivated offending, and “sustains every criminal activity engaged in for profit, which is to say all crime but crimes of passion or vengeance" (Noble, 1993, p. 3). However, the profit motive central to some of the most serious offending "equally damaging to society" failed to appear in the 'priority areas' that ultimately became The 5 Drivers of Crime at the core of police focus on "the underlying causes of offending and victimisation.” In practice, however, this gap is not lost on NZ Police, as outlined in the following section. The subsequent section then suggests why it matters if there is a gap between what is said and done.

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