Any right-minded person would know

19:17, Jan 05 2014
john pratt
ONE SIDE OF THE DEBATE: Academic John Pratt.

The papers reported a bit of a stoush between a Victoria University professor and a spokesman for the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

It was typical of its kind. The university chap, a professor no less, pitted against a down-to-earth member of the community. The academic was an expert in criminal justice and said that while crime was decreasing everywhere, still the fear of crime was flourishing because of the sensationalism of its reporting.

He said New Zealanders were believing the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which argued that crime was increasing and punishment getting more liberal, etc.

garth mcvicar
OTHER SIDE: Garth McVicar.

The trust came out swinging and said the professor was typical of the liberal academic establishment.

This sort of standoff is not unusual and perhaps more common in New Zealand than in countries that value intellectuals and academics more than we do.

The university type is seen to be "not in touch" and to live in an unreal world. The ordinary man in the street is the battler for common sense.


Academics in their ivory towers are easy to denigrate, and sometimes need to be, however, we are pretty choosy about this and it depends on our own prejudices. The findings of so-called "hard" disciplines are easier to accept.

If research shows that too much lead in petrol is bad for us and this is backed up by trials and rigorous lab tests, then we are more likely to accept the findings and do something about it.

Likewise we accept the research findings of academics on things such as asbestos, and radiation. We are less likely to accept empirical evidence when we don't like the outcome and when it goes against our so-called "common sense". (Unfortunately, common sense doesn't always lead to common practice.)

Our emotions and prejudices come into play when we decide to buy things on the strength of a catchy jingle. Rationality does not often come into play, especially about Christmas time.

Criminal justice is a perfect forum in which the rational and emotional polarities are evidenced.

Only so-called victimless crime does not evince emotions because, ordinarily, victims are individuals who get hurt by an offender. We can empathise with victims because they are people just like us.

We think the "system", peopled by remote bureaucrats and headed by well-paid judges and lawyers, takes over and distances the victim even more. To the right- minded citizen, answers to crime abound and are self-evident.

A quick kick on the backside by the local copper, longer and harder prison sentences, and "boot camps" all appeal to the emotions.

The rational approach smacks of trendy liberalism especially when it is propounded by professors.

Yet this approach is generally empirically based, the same sort of empiricism that makes it clear to us that asbestos is bad. It is based on research that is tested and verifiable data.

The latest interchange between academic and man in the street is typical of many such interactions and the Sensible Sentencing Trust says "we haven't got letters behind our names. We are just ordinary people standing up for what we believe".

And that is the problem, because beliefs are not based on empirical data. Crime is decreasing in much of the Western World as outlined in an Economist article in July. This article provides data and gives rational reasons as why this is the case.

The trust also said the "cost of imprisonment is irrelevant to us".

This "belief" is unfortunate, because the money saved in lessening the high incidence of imprisonment could go to providing restorative justice conferences for victims of offenders who have been sentenced.

The government steadfastly refuses to fund these. This interchange between the academic and the man in the street is sadly all too common.

We prefer not to listen to those who produce empirical data that challenges our prejudices and beliefs. We prefer to take a "No 8 wire" wapproach to problems, forgetting that even No 8 wire was developed by an academic of some sort.

Footnote: Kevin Foley is a former Timaru probation officer.

The Timaru Herald