Once again the politicians and the media are trying to outdo each other to show how right-wing they can be on the law and order issue. This time the catalyst is a recent High Court decision that inmates at Paremoremo prison are entitled to compensation for cruel and inhumane treatment they have received while being locked up. The court said that what happened to them was a violation of their human rights. Political parties from all parts of the spectrum (with the exception of the Greens) and media outlets could hardly contain their outrage at what they saw as a travesty of justice. The truth is that these politicians are exploiting this moral outrage to jump on a populist bandwagon. But why all the fuss?

Winding up the mob

“What about the victims,” was the outcry. “How come they don’t get any compensation,” everyone said. Holmes played a particularly despicable interview with the mother of a girl murdered by one of the inmates who is to receive compensation. The reporter managed to exploit this poor women’s grief to maximum effect for prurient public gratification with stock questions like “how did you feel when you heard that the murderer of your daughter was to get compensation.”

There are a couple of points that have been largely and conveniently overlooked by the politicians and the media. The first is that just because someone is in prison does not mean they cannot be a victim. The inmates were part of the now thoroughly discredited “behavior modification” programme. The second point overlooked is that it doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or’ situation. The cry of “why should these people receive compensation when their victims haven’t got any” could easily be replaced by the question “why shouldn’t the original victims get compensation in the first place.”

Speaking on Kim Hill’s Face to Face programme on 6 October lawyer Tony Ellis (who represented the inmates in court) made this very point, the only time it has been made. He challenged Phil Goff, Minister of Justice who was also on the programme to set up a Victim Compensation Board for ALL victims of crime.

Tony Ellis said:
“If the state is concerned about paying victims then it should set up a criminal victims’ compensation board to pay all victims. Why has it suddenly become concerned? The only reason it’s become concerned is because some prisoners have got some compensation because the state has treated them in an appalling and inhumane manner.”

Rather than front up and admit that our prisons are failing to achieve anything other than lock people up (in many cases over and over again) Goff just kept bleating on and on about the original victims of these inmates not getting any compensation. Amazingly, he also seemed to imply that these inmates are paying no penalty at all for what they have done. Tony Ellis quite rightly pointed out that they are serving long sentences, in some cases life, as their punishment.

Most of the people committing criminal acts against people and property have no money. They are at the bottom of the socio-economic heap so they are hardly in a position to pay compensation, with one exception which we will come to shortly.

The fact that Goff and the other political opportunists in this country have no intention of setting up a Victims Compensation Board is no accident. They aren’t prepared to take victims seriously. They would rather use them as a political football in their populist campaign to demonize inmates.

White Collar Crime

On the same day this television debate took place another event occurred which though reported will probably be forgotten very quickly. This was the release of this year’s report from the Serious Fraud Office head David Bradshaw. In this report he spoke of his frustration at the light sentences that white collar criminals get in this country compared to other convicted inmates, most of who come from the bottom of the heap.

In his report he said:
“The outrage at offending should be no less simply because the offender is clean shaven, lives in a ‘good’ neighborhood and supports worthwhile charities. If anything, we should be more outraged at the double standards of the white collar offender”

It will be a cold day in hell when Goff and most other politicians take white collar crims seriously. How often do we hear calls for reparations from these offenders, hardly ever. Even if there are attempts made to get money from them, it is often a fruitless exercise since their money is tied up in trusts so it can’t be touched. . Greg Newbold, a Christchurch academic calculated that white collar crime costs the country 40 times in dollars terms what street crime costs.

Many white collar criminals emerge from prison to return to their nice house and car and manage to get on with their lives pretty well. Famous fraudster Allan Hawkins of Equitycorp served 2.5 years of a 6 year sentence – a good investment at about $35 million a year. The same can’t be said of the vast majority of offenders who emerge from prison with little or nothing and end up on the dole.

Then there are the ‘insider trading’ allegations that David Richwhite, of the famous merchant bank partnership, Fay Richwhite who made millions from the sale of state assets in the 1980s, also made many more millions by selling his Tranzrail shares just before they crashed in value. This sort of fraud is the most profitable of all and few get charged let alone convicted.

The disparity in sentencing is no mystery though. The working class are never going to be treated the same as middle and upper class people in our system. Judges are from the ruling class and it is no surprise they look after their own when sentencing. The message is this, to bash one person is more serious than to rip off many people. It’s almost as if the state is saying in a free market if people get defrauded by a member of the ruling class then it’s more of an accident than anything else. Indeed, some radical capitalists believe that in a true free market, it would be tough luck and your own stupidity if you got defrauded. They are really only taking capitalism to its natural conclusion.

Ruling class law

It has been said that the ruling class maintain their rule by a combination of fear and fraud and therefore when someone of that class strays they are treated more like an errant schoolboy than a criminal. Whereas when working class kids transgress, they get labelled, arrested, slammed up and abused, and then denied compensation. After all, if these young workers won’t work then we’ll make them an example to keep the other workers in line!

In conclusion, compensation should be paid to the victims of our corrupt jail system just as it should be paid to the victims of crime. However we also need to realize that this will not solve the underlying issues that we can’t make the system “fair.” The way that our so-called justice system treats different kinds of offenders brings us back to a realization that nothing will ever change for victims of crime until we change the system that gives rise to all forms of oppression in the first place.

From Class Struggle 58 October-November 2004

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