Violence as a public issue
Violent crime attracts more public attention in New Zealand than any other form of crime. Murders, assaults and rapes dominate newspaper headlines, attract television news viewers, and ignite public debate about harsher sentences for offenders and better support for victims of crime. However, violent crime was only 18% of all recorded offences in 2014, and murder and manslaughter made up fewer than 0.2% of all recorded violent offences between 1994 and 2014. Between 2010 and 2014 there was an average of 65.6 homicides reported each year in New Zealand, 43.2 of which were reported as murders. Since 1985 the number of reported murders in New Zealand has been fairly stable, ranging from 41 to 73 each year.
Types of violent crime
Violent crime includes homicide (such as murder and manslaughter), kidnapping and abduction, robbery, assaults (grievous, serious or minor), intimidation and threats, and group assemblies (offences such as unlawful assembly, harassment and rioting). Much of the violent crime reported to the police relates to minor offences. Serious assaults were 30% of all forms of reported violent offending in 2014. In 2017–2018 serious assault victimisations involving injury represented 22.5% of all assault victimisations. Due to a change in crime recording methods in 2017 this figure is not comparable with previous reports.
Other crimes of violence include domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse, but these crimes usually occur behind closed doors and are often unreported. As a result, official figures reveal only a fraction of the true incidence of these crimes.
Reported domestic disputes peaked in the early 1990s and dropped in the mid-1990s, but rose again at the end of the decade. Since then reported domestic disputes have grown steadily. In 2006 the Police investigated 61,947 family violence cases. In 2015 they investigated 110,114 cases of family violence, up 8% from 101,981 in 2014. Approximately 40% of all homicides are domestic-related.
Violence against children
In the 2010s the Department of Child, Youth and Family (CYF) received around 150,000 notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect each year. About 60,000 required further action. In 2015–2016, 2,953 children under 17 years of age were reported as having experienced physical abuse. Due to changed recording methods, this figure is not comparable with previous reports.
Between 2007 and 2014, 64 children under 15 were victims of homicide. Children under 5 were most at risk – over three-quarters of all child homicides in this period.
Weird crime city?
The discovery of the bodies of two women buried below the floor of a house in Christchurch in September 2009, following a number of other high-profile murders, led to the city being described as ‘New Zealand’s capital of bizarre crime’1. However, the police stated that Christchurch was not more prone to violent crime than other New Zealand cities.
Kidnapping and abduction
In New Zealand law, kidnapping is the unlawful detention or carrying away of any person against his or her will. Abduction is carrying away a woman or girl for the purposes of marrying her or having sex with her against her will. Kidnapping and abduction carry a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.
These crimes are uncommon in New Zealand, and before 1997 there were fewer than 100 a year. However, these offences become more frequent and exceeded 200 from 1997. More than 300 abductions and kidnappings were recorded annually between 2006 and 2009 before falling in later years. Between 2012 and 2014 there was an average of 223 abductions and kidnappings each year. There was an average of 354 in 2015–2016 but this figure is not comparable with earlier data.
Increases in violent crime
Rates of violent crime (based on both reports and convictions) have increased since the Second World War. These increases have occurred across all forms of violent crime – murder, manslaughter, assaults, robbery, sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as violence against children.
Violent crimes reported to the police increased from 640 per 100,000 people in 1985 to a peak of 1,562 in 1996. After that they decreased slightly, but soon began to rise again. In 2008 nearly 1,400 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 citizens. Recent increases in reports of violent crime are related to a rise in recorded family violence. This is probably due to lower tolerance of domestic violence, and to police training initiatives that increased police responsiveness to complaints about family violence. Reported violent crime peaked in 2009 at 66,464 offences, then fell to 60,117 in 2013 before rising again in 2014 to almost 62,000. The police's new recording method, introduced in 2014, shows that per capita violent crime increased by 17% between 2014 and 2017.
In 2000 New Zealand’s rate of violent crime was slightly higher than Australia’s. There were almost identical rates for homicide, but New Zealand had higher rates for assault and Australia’s sexual-assault rates were higher. International comparison of crime rates, including rates of violent crime, is very difficult because countries record crime rates in different ways.
A comparison of OECD countries with respect to rates of physical assaults, threats and sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in 2004/5 identified New Zealand as having the highest rate of intimate partner violence. These statistics included reports of violence by both women and men.
Society’s abhorrence of violent crime has been reflected in prison sentences. Sentences for violent offences are harsher than for other crimes. The Criminal Justice Act 1985 made imprisonment virtually mandatory for violent offences punishable by at least five years’ imprisonment. Amendments to this legislation in 1987 and 1993 increased levels of imprisonment and non-parole periods (the period during which an offender cannot apply to be released from prison) for violent offences. Release conditions were tightened and the maximum penalty for sexual violation extended from 14 years to 20 years. Average sentences for very serious offences increased sharply between 1986 and 1996.
The Parole Act 2002 and the Sentencing Act 2002 created a minimum non-parole period of 17 years for murder committed under certain aggravating circumstances (including killing more than one person, killing during a home invasion or using a high level of brutality), and extended the scope of preventive detention (indefinite imprisonment). Prison sentences increased; there were fewer early-parole releases and a greater number of recalls for parole violation. Lobby groups such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust continue to argue that more severe sentences were needed to act as a deterrent against violent crime and as a form of justice for the victims of crime. Others, however, argue for a more rehabilitative approach to offending.
The profile of criminal violence appears to have altered little in response to these sentencing and parole changes. However, in 2010 the government introduced a version of the US’s 'three strikes and you're out' policy, with stronger penalties for repeat violent and sexual offenders. Those with three strikes are now required to serve maximum sentences without the possibility of parole. However, up to August 2018 the courts had used a provision in the law to allow parole eligibility in every third strike case.
In November 2017 the new Labour/New Zealand First Coalition government announced that it would end the three strikes policy because it had not led to a reduction in serious crime nor acted as an effective deterrent. Opposition from Labour's coalition partner New Zealand First prevented the law being removed in 2018.