Monday, 19 January 2009

Crime tax?

To my surprise, my first reaction to National's proposed crime tax wasn't entirely negative, although I've certainly got some concerns. It's suggested that all those convicted of crimes will be fined $50 to go towards a victim compensation scheme. The scheme will help victims with crime-related costs not currently met by the state, such as the costs of funerals or traveling to court.

Victims deserve support, and someone's got to pay for it - sounds fair enough so far. But, as with all policies, the devil will be in the detail. My questions/concerns include:

- Perhaps the most dodgy aspect - it is proposed that compensation awarded to prisoners for human rights abuses suffered in prison will be immediately confiscated and put into the scheme. This makes a mockery of the concept of 'compensation', suggests that prisoners shouldn't have the same human rights as the rest of us, and reduces the deterrent against prisons treating inmates inhumanely.

- People who get heavy sentences are unlikely to be able to pay the fines, meaning minor criminals (whose actions cause less hardship to victims) will end up carrying the can. Although it's called a tax, what's being proposed is really a punitive measure - and it doesn't seem fair that the young guy who gets done for possessing a bit of cannabis pays as much, or more reparation than the person who commits murder.

- Could such a scheme be administered without descending into absurdity or poor taste? Could it result in WINZ-like situations where claimants had to show three quotes for the funeral costs of someone who'd died as the result of a crime?

- All sentences impose hardship on the families of the people sentenced - that's a given, and a whole different issue. But if a man is convicted of domestic violence and has to pay an additional $50 in crime tax, his wife/partner/kids end up sharing the added financial burden. They end up being victimised twice.

If the more objectionable parts of this scheme - like the confiscation of prisoners' compensation - were taken out, would it be a good thing? Is there a better way to support victims of crime? What do you lovely THM readers think?


Hugh said...

I may be looking at this through a narrowly economic perspective, but when viewed that way (and in my defense this is first and foremost a tax) it's incredibly regressive.

It's a poll tax, which is bad enough. But it's a poll tax which will fall disproportionately on the poor (that's who commits crimes, for the most part).

Big thumbs down.

anna c said...

And further to what Hugh said, I'm wary of any charge which does not take account of income.

I'm not entirely opposed, but I'd want more details. I'm concerned that those who can't or won't have someone convicted - or at least prosecuted - could be made to feel they are not entitled to support. I also don't see how it could be justified in a case of, say, cannabis possession (though I guess that's an argument that that is a victimless crime and should be decriminalised). But mostly I think it's a gimmick - why does the government feel they can't be seen to be helping victims independently of hurting criminals?

Cat said...

I think it's missing the point. Arbitrarily making all convicted 'criminals' pay an arbitrary amount (is it going to be indexed? is there allowance for annual increase?) will probably just add to the bureaucracy that exists in relation to collecting fines etc, and is hardly likely to reduce the victim's stress when dealing with the outcome of the crime.

That said, I don't like the idea that victims are punished, either financially or logistically, as the result of a crime committed against them. As four-years-old as this makes me sound, it's not 'fair'.

Some kind of increased victim support which has a fund to assist would be good, as well as practical help (eg someone to help organise funerals, hospital visits, etc). But that requires funding. I think is a blanket and arbitrary approach to a problem which needs more thought.

(Sorry no real answer!)

George said...

If they wanted a "real" crime tax, whereby criminals would help pay for the victims of crime, they'd do it progressively, and take thousands from the rich. Perhaps not so appealing to ACT and National?

$50 is palatable because it's almost nothing to most (although still a bit to the poor). To that end I can't really see how it will raise much for victims.

And a law that doesn't really do much, with possible unintended effects, is my definition of a bad law.

Anna said...

I wonder if it will apply to corporate crime? Almost certainly not, I'm guessing...

Hugh said...

I expect it will, Anna, but $50 is pretty small beer to most corporate criminals.

That's the nature of poll taxes, or indeed any other absolute equalisation in an economically inequal society.

Anonymous said...

They've had this in the uk for a while and it is a sick joke. Not only does it have little to no effect on the victims, it disproportionately penalises the poor who are unfortunate enough to get convicted (which they are more likely to do). The question of what happens to Ms Cliche "stealing food for her starving child" is... she gets slugged with the tax, just like everyone else. With some judges it means poor people are more likely to get discharged without conviction, but the way ACT run things I think the opposite is the desired outcome.

I'd much rather see PoC legislation targeted at white collar criminals with the explicit goal of bankrupting the criminals. It is, after all, only money that they are losing. But when the govt has many of those people in it, fat chance.



Hugh said...

Actually I need to go back on what I've said earlier. When people envisage 'white collar criminals' the stereotype seems to be a guffawing pakeha male corporate executive fleecing shareholders for millions to keep a second mistress or a house in the Bahamas. While this obviously happens, many white collar criminals aren't that wealthy. Case in point, a couple of people at my workplace were recently dismissed for utilising the phone system to make international phone calls to the tune of several thousand dollars. These people were both youngish, uneducated, with large families. An extra $50 fee would probably be a considerable hardship to them, but they would be considered white collar criminals.

To National the divide is not white and blue (?) collar criminals, but wealthy criminals and poor criminals. It's certainly true that wealthy criminals are mostly white collar criminals, but the opposite isn't true.

Julie said...

It just seems enormously impractical to me. Sometimes there are already reparations ordered by the court (I think, don't know much about it). And a great proportion of those who will be fined will default, making significant admin costs - and what will be the penalty for defaulting? Presumably you can get another conviction for not paying your fine? And then we end up with people in prison for not paying fines. It just all seems a bit absurd to me.

I heard a news story about it on the radio yesterday and they said that a similar scheme in Australia (NSW I think?) people were paying 90-95% of the fines. But it didn't say how much the fine was, or how much work had to go in to getting that return rate.

Plus I just cannot see this working at all (even badly) without staff to do it. And in the public service aren't they called bureaucrats? And aren't National talking about capping bureaucrats? So wouldn't they have to ditch some public servants elsewhere in the system to bring this scheme in?

Tui said...

I really love what anna c said: "But mostly I think it's a gimmick - why does the government feel they can't be seen to be helping victims independently of hurting criminals?"

Yeah, that. My major issue with it, as I've said elsewhere, is - what is the purpose of convicting criminals? Usually we put together a mix of deterrence (of crime-committing) and prevention (of a criminal repeating her crime), which act together to protect people living in society; rehabilitation, which protects both criminals and the functioning of society; and of course, retribution, which acts to punish the criminal. I personally feel that retribution is the least philosophically justified or justifiable component and therefore shy away from it, but it is quite fundamental to some people's notions of "justice". Now, where does a $50 fine sit? It's too small to deter. It doesn't protect. It certainly doesn't constitute rehabilitation. All it can really be said to do is act as a further punishment - except 1. surely the whole point of a court is that they are sufficient punishment and 2. a fundamental part of retributive justice is "punishment must fit the crime" - there's no one-size-fits-all punishment. This kind of thing makes a mockery of retributive justice.

Given all that, the fine does not fit into any purpose of the justice system as I understand it. So what's it for? It's for National to look like it's being tough on crime; it's for self-righteous assholes like the Sensible Sentencing Trust to get off on. Nothing else. Oh, except maybe the government trying to raise some money because it's not capable of doing so itself, without a bonus poor tax.

Anna said...

Looked at another way, though (and I'm playing devil's advocate here to some extent), if you accept that victims are entitled to the support of the state, someone has to pay for it.

As a rule of thumb, we generally expect people to pay for the damage they do, particularly when it's deliberate. There are notable exceptions (eg, farmers' refusal to pay a fart tax some years ago to cover costs of the environmental damage their industry causes), but we do things like, for example, make people minimise/repair damage done to the environment while building as a condition of their resource consent. So in some circumstances, we accept it's OK to levy the costs of certain things on individuals, not the community.

The US bail-out is using the public purse to compensate investors and workers who stand to lose out because of the incompentence, greed, and possibly criminality of a small group of people. I thinks that's morally dubious. Is it therefore fair to bill the harm caused by another group (those who break the law) back to those who don't? In this case, the difference seems to be that most of the people likely to be affected are poor. When the Blue Chip guy Petrovic (sp?) had his sports car confiscated by the court, no one gave a shit, least of all me.

So if this weren't a poll tax - ie, if it recognised differing abilities to pay, or different magnitudes of crime (damage caused) with differential rates - would it be so objectionable?

I'm aware that I'm neatly avoiding the larger issues of the sociological causes of crime here!

Mikaere Curtis said...

This policy was clearly a vote-grabber aimed at disgruntled reactionaries, and is typically ill-conceived as is much of National's soundbite-quality "policy".

If they want to create a compensation fund that is funded by convicted criminals, a much better way would be to tag the first $50 of all fines as being assigned to the fund.

This way would mean no extra (and unjustifiable) hardship to convicted criminals.

Hugh said...

Anna, I can see your point, but there's a massive incongruity between the damage done by most crime and the ability of the criminals to pay. When you take into account emotional damage, the need for health support, and the knock-on effects to their families suffered by victims of rape or assault, it's potentially in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most violent criminals don't have that kind of money.

Even with the best will in the world and a supremely efficient bureaucracy, fining offenders will never play a major part in compensating victims of crime as long as most crime is committed by the poor. And in a capitalist society, that's going to remain the case.

Julie said...

I think there's quite a good point about "victimless" crimes, eg marijuana use.

Will this crime tax fund be ring-fenced and only used to cover costs victims suffer above what the state covers (eg I heard recently that ACC won't cover counselling for anyone unless they have suffered a physical assault). Or will it go into the general fund?

And if marijuana possession or civil disobedience convictions mean you have to cough up $50 to cover the costs of non-existent victims, then isn't this scheme a bit senseless?

Anna said...

Actually, that's a good point Hugh - the amount of revenue collected from fines will be so insignificant compared to expenditure required (unless the scheme is really miserly) that the fining thing is really just symbolic - and therefore punitive.

The victimless crime thing is an interesting point to - lots of our laws (ostensibly) prevent us doing damage to ourselves, ie drug taking, seat belts, etc. It's not so much that these crimes are victimless, as that the victim is yourself - why fine someone for injuring themselves?

The administration required is certain to knock the whole thing on it's arse, I think. It will have to be so niggardly and difficult to access that it could actually lose political points rather than score them, good intentions or no.

Tui said...

Anna said: It's not so much that these crimes are victimless, as that the victim is yourself - why fine someone for injuring themselves?

Well, to play the devil's advocate for a second, why should taxpayers pay hospital bills for someone who didn't wear a seatbelt? (Note: I don't advocate for this position at ALL, but there are costs associated with this kind of behaviour that taxpayers do wear - so it is a consistent position.)

Anna said...

Well, I for one think the taxpayer should pay, and I don't have a problem with the taxpayer paying for victim's compensation either (except the pragmatic concerns that the fiscal situation is tight, and I think the electorate wouldn't want to pay for a victim's compensation scheme under the circumstances).

I guess you can draw a (weak)distinction between those who intend to cause harm (ie the person who deliberately assaults another person) and those who don't (the person who's injured because he doesn't wear his cycle helmet). But that's an unbelievably grey area, and tricky to translate into policy, even if it was ethical.

To look at a parallel, ACC's no-fault compensation includes people who injure themselves by being reckless. It's also recently been extended to people who harm themselves deliberately (eg suicide attempts) because this was seen to be the logical extension of the no-fault principle.

In short, even if you're looking for precedents/priciples elsewhere to base a victims' scheme on, there's still a heap to choose from!

AWicken said...

I wonder just how accurate the "90-95% payment" claim is.

I know of a few people who might not technically be "homeless", but they are "local personalities". Three in particular stand out as having a string of convictions a mile long - a couple for petty theft habits (worst thieves in the world, btw), but most of their convictions would be for trespass - i.e. the store/mall/campus/gallery doesn't want them around customers. One woman got something like 30 trespass convictions in one year.

I can't help wondering 2 things - how many convictions are for "local personalities" and "boy racer" fines that will not be paid back any time soon if ever, and how many of the "95% paid" refer to payment *arrangements* of $5/week for the next 60 years.

Julie said...

Readers may be interested in this article on Stuff today, Victims of crime owed $80 million:

"Justice Ministry figures show $78.1 million of court-ordered reparation was owed to victims at October 31 last year. That compares with $59.2 million of outstanding reparation in 2005 and $38.5 million in 2001.

Victim Support chief executive Tony Paine said the system was clearly not working. "From the point of view of victims, that's outrageous ... The whole system was designed to provide some sense of compensation and redress, and it's obviously become very token."

Anna said...

As far as I can gather, only a little over half of reparation owed is actually paid. There's a very real chance that the $50 fine system would cost more to administer (taking into account debt collection costs) than it would actually generate.

AWicken said...

More to the point, if one conflates "owed to victims" and "failed to reach victims", the total of the former is about $6M/year increase ((78M-59M)/ 3 years), while they stated that $5M was unpaid because the cheques weren't cashed other there were administrative errors - NOT because the department didn't get the money off the criminal.

Even if the 2 are seperate, it does seem that "non-payment of fines" is closely matched by "we get the money but can't give it to the victim for whatever reason". Surprising that they haven't tried to use it as an excuse to contract out the entire process.