Wellington, October 7,2023
The timing was catastrophic. As the Labour government was applauding itself for the successful “circuit breaker” fast-track programme designed to stop repeat youth offending, a 24-year-old was produced before an Auckland district court following a stabbing incident in a local dairy on October 5.
The incident prompted Dairy and Business Owners’ Group chairman Sunny Kaushal to accuse the government of laxity in controlling retail crime.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was quick to condemn the Auckland attack as “utterly unacceptable” and reportedly said the government was open to “changing the law” to empower police to better protect businesses.
The optics around the incident got worse when it turned out the offender had been granted electronic bail earlier this year, which the police had opposed.
The latest Auckland dairy attack took the sheen off the government’s “circuit breaker” programme, which was extended to new locations last week.
Piloted in West and South Auckland in December last year, the programme targeted children aged 10-13 “who commit serious offending or continue to reoffend at a high rate and need a more intensive, wrap-around approach.”
The programme had been operational in Auckland Central, Hamilton and Christchurch, and was set to cover Whangarei, Rotorua, Lower Hutt and Dunedin in the future.
Under the programme, a young offender’s information was shared by police with Oranga Tamariki within 24 hours after the commission of an offence, with a rehabilitation plan in place within 48 hours.
Minister for Children Kelvin Davis was brimming with optimism.
“We have seen fantastic results from the fast-track programme where it has been rolled out and the key is agencies such as Police and Oranga Tamariki working in collaboration with the community,” Davis said.
The minister touted figures to support his optimism. Of the 252 young offenders who had passed through the programme to date, 80% had not re-offended.
These results came fresh off an “intense version” of the fast track programme launched in early October, catering for hard cases for whom the standard programme was not enough and who needed to be supervised by an “intensive support social worker.”
Police Minister Ginny Andersen thought the circuit breaker programme had been successful in breaking the cycle of offending.
Andersen talked up the government’s record on ram raids. “Ram raids are currently at their lowest in two years. They’ve dropped down to 35 for the month of August, following a trend downwards of 42 in July and 50 in June,” she declared in a statement released on October 3.
There was the inevitable comparison with National’s record. “This is in stark contrast to National’s failed boot camp experiment, which saw 80% of young people reoffend after they completed the programme,” the minister said.
The government’s initiatives in response to youth crime have included a new offence specifically targeting ram raiding, incriminating clauses to cover adults using young people to commit crimes, an aggravated sentence for posting crimes online and a requirement for young offenders to attend education programmes or undergo community service.
Labour’s chest-thumping on its crime-fighting initiatives was clearly out of sync with the reality on the ground, as the Auckland dairy attack showed. Prosecutor Sam Papp reportedly told the court that police had opposed granting the offender electronic bail earlier this year, prompting speculation around the efficacy of the electronic bail system and the need for a review.
Impact of retail crime
Police have estimated retail crime costs New Zealand retailers $1 billion each year, and has “ a significant personal impact on those working in the industry.”
Bollards and other security equipment installed for small retailers from a $6 million allocation under a crime prevention programme managed by police have proved futile, retailers have said.
Last year, police recorded 516 ram raids and identified 708 offenders. Of these, 495 were aged under 17 years, 70 under 13 years, and 88 were adults.
Police said there were 388 ram raid style incidents resulting in 218 prosecutions in the six months ended May this year, as per local media. Cash, tobacco products, cigarettes and alcohol are the preferred targets in ram raids.
Given that Prime Minister Hipkins had consistently ruled out the need for a change of law around youth offending, his climbdown on the subject in the aftermath of the October 5 Auckland dairy attack smacked of a desperate bid to woo voters a week out from election day.
But angry business owners are raising their fists for harsher penalties for offenders.
The overarching question in this general election is: Will New Zealand lawmakers demonstrate the political will to enact the law change required to bring harsher penalties for retail crime?
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington