Lack of evidence based policy reform | The Jackal

13 Jun 2013

Lack of evidence based policy reform

If you've got a moment, and can stop laughing at a speech by Bill English being likened to a "god-ordained" moment, it might be worth reading Kim Workman's entire speech on Reducing Crime and Reoffending (PDF) in New Zealand, presented at Victoria University on Tuesday.

There are a number of poignant and relevant comments that don't just relate to researching the topic of criminal behaviour and how best to spend our criminological dollar, but also relate to journalism and policy development in general.

Here's an excerpt from her conclusion that I found particularly interesting:

We must not be discouraged. Evidence is intellectually and socially important on all these issues. Even with those non-negotiable items, evidence sharpens and clarifies what the issues really are. For example, if there is no credible empirical evidence to show that prison acts as a deterrent, people who support imprisonment for ideological reasons, may hide behind a claim that prison incapacitates offenders; i.e. that while in prison they cannot victimise. If they are confronted with the emerging evidence, i.e. that prison simply postpones offending behaviour, then they are left to defend the policy on moral grounds - a much more difficult proposition.

Last week I watched the You Tube Parliamentary speeches in support of the The Prisoners and Victims Claims (Continuation and Reform) Act; legislation which allows victims of crime to take the compensation granted to prisoners who have been abused or mistreated by the state. The legislation is morally corrupt, and the discomfort on the faces of politicians speaking on this legislation, was palpable. There was no rational justification for the legislation, and they were left in a vulnerable place, supporting morally indefensible legislation, in the absence of empirical evidence for its support.

Kim Workman is correct; the Prisoners and Victims Claims (Continuation and Reform) Act is indeed morally corrupt. Unfortunately the current governments moral compass doesn't look like being fixed anytime soon by an evidence based argument.

But what else is new? We see the same thing with the debate concerning marijuana legislation, private prisons and charter schools. In fact nearly every policy change the current government is advancing is not supported by the evidence.

As Workman succinctly points out; "researchers have been largely replaced by legislators and politicians, in influencing media reports and public policy." In my opinion, this dynamic can only be detrimental, and a return to an evidence based policy direction is required to ensure our society isn't further degraded by politicians with ulterior motives.