Should we be sentencing criminals to transportation?

Yesterday’s Age reported the case of Andrew Moore, who died in England of a heroin overdose. Two days before he died, Moore had been removed from Australia after his visa had been cancelled on character grounds.

The interesting aspect of this case is that, as in a number of similar cases in recent years, Moore was in all but law an Australian. Originally from Scotland, he’d lived here for 32 of his 43 years. But he had never taken out Australian citizenship. People in this situation who are convicted of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment of 12 months or more can have their visas cancelled, and be sent back to the country they originally came from.

Moore’s crime – manslaughter – was a lot more serious than just one involving a year in jail, and he was a junkie and a drunk as well. Unlike other ‘Australians’ sent back to their birth countries, he could at least speak its language. But this practice of throwing people out of the country on what looks like a technicality does seem problematic to me.

It means that imprisoning long-term non-residents can be tantamount to also sentencing them to transportation. Continue reading “Should we be sentencing criminals to transportation?”

Do theories of racism explain crimes against international students?

Victoria University has published a lengthy research paper on the ‘community safety’ of international students.

Their survey of international and domestic students at Victorian universities and private providers finds that international students are at greater risk than domestic students of various adverse incidents. But this greater risk is in the context of a more general incivility and crime problem:

Compared with domestic students, international students were significantly more likely to feel unsafe at work (10% vs 5%), to report being verbally abused (58% vs 44%) to report being physically attacked (11% vs 7.5%) and to report being robbed (10% vs 5%). ‘Physical intimidation’ was the only safety threat experienced reported slightly more often by domestic students compared with international students (25% vs 20%).

While the researchers surveyed students and interviewed various ‘stakeholders’, the most important people in understanding the causes of these problems – the perpetrators, or even people from the youth subcultures they come from – don’t get a voice. Instead the report gives us pages of academic theories about racism, little of which seems to me to be helpful in understanding Melbourne’s particular recent issues. Continue reading “Do theories of racism explain crimes against international students?”

Public transport social capital not dead

A couple of weeks ago Tim Watts got a lot of coverage (here’s the Club Troppo version) for criticising the lack of response – from himself, and from others – to an incident on a tram, where a beggar started threatening and racially abusing a group of young Asian people. Like everyone else on the tram, he felt intimidated. He said the ‘inadequacy of the police response has created a climate in which people are fearful of speaking out’.

While the incident I observed on the number 96 tram this morning didn’t have a racial element, it did show that not everyone responds passively to threatening incidents. After a brief spray of abuse, a young man struck an elderly man, knocking him to the tram’s floor. The offender was immediately challenged by the two men closest to him; he threatened at least one of them but briefly backed off, before becoming aggressive again. But he did not get to carry out his threats, as two other young men tackled him to the floor, and then got him off the tram, pinning him to the ground despite his struggles.

Meanwhile at least two people were on the phone to the police, who acted quickly. The first police car was there in less than 5 minutes, two more police cars arrived shortly afterwards. The thug was arrested and put in the back of a police van. Continue reading “Public transport social capital not dead”

Ranking crime

The Fairfax broadsheets are having some fun with the ABS’s attempt to rank criminal offences.

“Theft of intellectual property” comes in at 73, one above actual physical theft from a retail premises, suggesting that it’s more serious to download a compact disc illegally than it is to walk into a store and steal one.

Surely the bigger problem here is that it is hard to rank theft independently of the value of what is stolen? Illegally copying a song is less serious than walking out of a shop with a laptop or camera without paying for it. But illegally copying valuable software is more serious than pinching a $1.50 newspaper.

Why is possessing illicit drugs (rank 124 out of 157) worse than actually using illicit drugs (rank 125)? And surely we have curious standards if desiring illicit drugs ranks so lowly while while meeting that desire is covered by a series of offences from rank 14 (importation) to 22 (dealing and trafficking). There would be no supply if there was no demand.

The politics of crime and race

Today Victorian police chief Simon Overland, with Premier John Brumby, announced further measures to crackdown on crime against Indian students.

This issue has been an interesting one, and is yet to fully play out.

The politics of crime 1

Mixing crime and race has brought the cultural left into the crime debate in a way that would have been unlikely otherwise. Though there is nothing intrinsically right-wing about being tough on crime, the propensity of right-of-centre parties to pursue ‘law and order’ politics pushes the cultural left into an oppositional stance: that fear of crime is exaggerated, that punishment doesn’t do much to rehabilitate, etc. Would Guy Rundle and David Marr have leapt into print if there was a crime wave without a racial angle?

The politics of crime 2

Even without an expressly racial element, this issue is interesting because a group has firmly, persistently, and successfully demanded that more be done to enforce the law. Usually, being a victim of crime is a lonely experience: people will sympathise with you, but they won’t mobilise for you. They don’t see your victimhood as a substantial risk to themselves. By targeting Indian students, the thugs picked on a group for whom a common identity is still strong, which provided the basis for political action.
Continue reading “The politics of crime and race”

Could hate crime legislation increase risks for others?

Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls is introducing hate crime provisions for sentencing laws:

Mr Hulls said the laws would apply to hate crimes motivated by race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

I’m not sure how the ‘hate’ element is determined in law, but in the media the racist element of attacks on Indian students has usually been inferred from the racial abuse handed out during the assault or robbery.

As yet, however, there is no evidence that the offenders have any particular racist ideology. Indeed, the Indians seem like odd targets for Anglo racists (Andrew Bolt claims that many of the attackers are Africans). English-speaking cricket lovers have more in common with the majority population than do many other migrant groups.

Because there is little history of anti-Indian racism in Australia the surveys on ethnic views don’t have much on Indians, but what polling there is suggests they barely register on the racist radar. For example, in a 2004 Saulwick poll conducted for the federal election that year, just 0.6% of respondents nominated India as a country from which we should not receive migrants. In the 2007 Mapping Social Cohesion survey, just 1.9% nominated India as a country from which we should receive fewer migrants.

The racist abuse Indian victims have received may have more to do with verbal intimidation than with actual racist views, an added element of picking on victims unlikely to fight back.

But assuming criminals have some basic level of rationality, could the prospect of a harsher sentence for picking on a ‘victim’ group make them more likely to pick targets with little chance of providing the prosecution with a ‘hate’ angle? With the Australian-born already at greater risk from criminals, ‘hate crime’ laws could add to their woes.

What can politicians do about crimes against Indian students?

Sunday’s protest by Indian students certainly drew plenty of attention, with Rudd and Turnbull both making statements on the issue in Parliament the following day. That’s what Age online subeditor Sam Varghese, of ‘distinctly sub-continental’ appearance, had called for on the paper’s opinion page:

My biggest fear is that, if nothing is done to stop this scourge, if the authorities do not stand up and shout with one voice, then the violence will start to bear fruit. (emphasis added)

Though it is sensible for political leaders to make reassuring statements when a group in the community is feeling anxious, will this affect the underlying problem? I seriously doubt that this would be the case. Despite decades of denunciation, a smallish minority in the community are still self-confessed racists, and a much larger group will admit to some prejudice.

Add to this that the people responsible for these attacks are flouting not just widely-held norms of tolerance but near universally-held norms and tough laws (passed by politicians) against assault, and we are clearly dealing with a group of people with little regard for the moral or legal authority of politicians.

Certainly the norms in favour of tolerance are worth reinforcing as a general principle, but they are not the solution to this particular problem, which is a sub-set of a much larger law and order problem. While no doubt there are things the Indian students can do to reduce the risks they face, ultimately additional policing and punishment of offenders will be needed to return crimes against Indian students to isolated incidents.

Are migrants more at risk of crime?

Recent crimes against Indian students have people of Indian appearance worried about their personal safety. But are migrants more generally at greater risk of crime?

As the chart below shows, migrants are less likely to have been victims of personal crime, defined as ‘robbery, assault or sexual assault’ in the previous twelve months, than people born in Australia. This holds for all age groups except those aged 60 years and over, for whom crime rates are very low in any case.

Source: ABS, Migrant Data Matrices 2008, derived from 2005 Crime and Safety survey

Nor is this figure distorted by migrants from Britain and other Anglo countries. People from non-English speaking backgrounds and Asian countries in particular are also less likely to be victims of crime (2006 General Social Survey data).
Continue reading “Are migrants more at risk of crime?”

What does the public think prisons are for?

The Australian Institute of Criminology has a new report out on public perceptions of crime levels and the performance of courts, prisons and police.

One curious result in the AIC survey is that while there is strong majority support for tougher sentencing (though it has trended down since the 1980s), most people say that they have ‘not very much confidence’ or no confidence in the prison system as a way of rehabilitating prisoners, of punishing them, of deterring future offending, or of teaching skills to prisoners. So perhaps the only thing prisons do effectively is keep habitual offenders off the streets for a while.

Except for protecting defendants’ rights, there is not much confidence in the court system either. Only the barest majority (51.5%) agrees with the proposition that the courts ‘deal with matters fairly’, and certainly not promptly, with only 22% of people believing that the courts deal with matters quickly. I wonder if this has implications for the bill/charter of rights debate. It’s not just that the public might not believe that the courts would do a good job in balancing rights. It’s that the courts could do without further possible causes of diminished public standing.