Monday, March 1, 2010

What is Simon Power up to?

I know this sounds like I'm trying to undermine him, but I have to confess to liking Justice Minister Simon Power. We entered Parliament together and I found him to be a bright, energetic and basically decent chap. Some of his recent decisions, however, bear out my opinion on the brain haemorraging effects of too many years in Parliament

The first is the decision to close Te Hurihanga here in Hamilton. Most people, even the Garth McVicar's of the world, agree that the real answer to reducing crime is early and intensive intervention. Putting serious resources into steering young offenders off the path to a criminal career makes sense in every way. It costs less than locking them in prison for years later on. It costs less than the economic damage their crimes will cause. Most importantly, it prevents innocent people from becoming their victims. It is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Te Hurihanga is a pilot residential facility for young troublemakers. The idea began with a youth court judge, Carolyn Henwood, who was concerned about the lack of facilities for serious young offenders. It is based on extensive research from around the world about what kinds of things do, and don't, work. It was supported by the late Maori Queen, Te Atairangikaahu, and incorporates a strong bicultural ethos. It has some important business support. It's reoffending rate so far (although it is early days) is zero. It has rightly been described as world leading.

So why would you close it down? I know the heat is on government ministers to find ways to cut budgets, but this seems like the epitomy of false economy. Actually the Minister may get a surprise when he finds out what he is actually going to save from the closure. He has been saying publicly that it costs around $630,000 per graduate. He worked that out by adding up all the capital and operating costs to date (including construction) and dividing it by the 8 graduates so far. I'm not an accountant, but even I can see the numbers are dodgy.

What will happen to the 10 or so young people currently coming through the programme? What will happen to the expertise built up over the development of the pilot? How much will it cost to develop a new programme on the same site under the 'Fresh Start' brand? No one can say because, judging by the poor officials that had to front up to the staff and public at Te Hurihanga, they don't know what it will be replaced with.

I was feeling a bit sorry for old Simon after all this. I figured that he has not been getting enough sleep and is beginning to make erratic decisions. My diagnosis was confirmed shortly after by his paranoid response to the Law Commission review of drug policy. I was a bit sniffy about it myself, because it was supposed to be a first principles review and turned out to be no more than a little fiddle.

I had thought the Commission would look at different approaches to controlling drugs, evaluate the evidence and then make recommendations. I even fantasised that they might be courageous enough to say that licensing people to grow and sell cannabis is the best way to control it, according to the evidence. Make it R18, don't allow any advertising and cut the tie between cannabis and hard drugs by bringing it into the open.

I'm joking of course. I didn't really think they would have the guts to propose something so eminently sensible, but I did expect a proper evaluation of the options. Instead they presented a report that began with an article of faith - that commercial sales should remain prohibited. They offered a tiny sop: instant fines instead of convicting people like me for personal cannabis use; allow sick people to use it for medicine. Paah – that's a political negotiating position, not the conclusion from a systematic review of the evidence.

In any case,when he saw the summary Simon's knee jerked so hard that he booted himself in the face. That's what political ambition does for you though – impairs thinking and hypersensitises the reflexes. But I have a cure. I recommend that he lights up a fatty and chills out.

(from my Waikato Times column 26 Feb)

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