Politicians stoke the violence myth

Knife in handI used to carry a knife in my handbag. Like nearly a quarter of Australians, I believe that 80 per cent of all crime is violent crime; I was concerned for my safety. And then I discovered that if my self-defence weapon were used, it would likely be used against me. So, I turned it in during the knife Amnesty month. Which was good, because the police were granted stop-and-search powers, and had I encountered a police officer, I would have been fined.

But the greater police visibility and ability for them to actually do things didn't alleviate my anxieties much — their increased presence only met the increase in street fighting. So I bit the bullet and cut down on spending time outside my home.

For a while, I felt that I was safe there, until I learnt the majority of violent crimes occur within the residential home. So now I spend most of my time inside the municipal library reading the papers and considering just how it got so bad. I'm sure it has a lot to do with youths.

Our society, like every other, has elements of violence. But the public's perception of it is disproportionate: almost one quarter of Australians believe violence is involved in 80 per cent of all crimes committed. The figure is below 10 per cent. The media and politicians have played a role in producing the hysteria.

I can't discern why crime and punishment is such a vital populist concern — perhaps because it plays into the good vs evil binaries that much of our culture is framed in. But frequently we see distasteful campaign of fear mongering, such as that which has characterised the lead-up to Victoria's state elections.

Crime involving violence accounts for fewer than one in ten of all crimes committed in Australia. In the past decade, overall crime rates have decreased significantly. Yet a majority of Australians believe crime rates have risen, and that fewer convicted criminals are given jail sentences than actually are.

A report published by the Australian Institute of Criminology in July indicates that the demographics most likely to over-estimate crime rates are those who are less likely to be victims of crime: the elderly, and females. Young males, who are most commonly its victims, tend to estimate crime rates most accurately.

Political leaders routinely promise to increase police numbers. There are positive aspects to this, but it is not value-free. The past five years has already seen a dramatic increase in police powers. The populist emphasis on 'street crime' will see a greater extension of these powers in public spaces.

It overlooks the reality that the majority of violent crimes occur inside residential buildings, perpetrated by people known to the victim. A heightened police presence in public areas does not promise to challenge cultures of violence in our society, but gives the impression of an aspiring police state.

When random violent assaults do occur, politicians and the media sensationalise them, distorting public perceptions of safety.

Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Rapke, QC, has, in the past few weeks, incurred criticism from Victoria Legal Aid, the Law Institute of Victoria, and the Criminal Bar Association over his push for harsher sentencing for violent crimes.

Supported by both the State Government and the Opposition, Rapke has opposed lenient sentencing and urged senior judges to apply longer sentences for certain violent crimes. He has consequently been accused of asking judges to step outside of established legal parameters.

Victoria's jail sentences are the most severe in the country, and the reoffending rate is the lowest. If the state is to maintain an autonomous and distinguished justice system, Victorian judges ought to be independent from the manoeuvres of party politicians.

In the lead-up to the Victorian elections, both parties have promoted disproportionate perceptions of social insecurity in our communities for political gain. Their campaign reflects Australia-wide values. It is at best cynical, at worst, a palpable disregard for the civil liberties of those who are racially, economically or otherwise marginalised.

For the rest of us, facial recognition technology in train stations should alleviate our anxieties of imminent attacks. Considering the disparity between hysterical public perceptions of crime and the realities of it, the integrity of Australian courts ought to be left to legal professionals. 


Ellena SavageEllena Savage edits the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: victorian state elections, john brumby, ted ballieu, Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Rapke



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