Dishonesty crimes include theft, burglary, fraud and tax evasion. The most commonly reported dishonesty offences are theft (taking something that does not belong to you) and burglary (breaking and entering with intent to commit a crime, usually theft). Fraud has no precise legal definition but generally describes crimes that deprive someone of something by deceit.
Crime against property is the most common crime, accounting for around 70% of New Zealand’s total reported offences in the 2010s. A vast amount of dishonesty crime goes unreported. Information about thefts among family or between friends is often not passed on to the police. Stock goes missing from businesses and is attributed to breakages and administrative errors, most shoplifters are never caught, and inflated expense claims go unnoticed.
Thumbing a ride
A compulsive thief who accumulated 28 convictions, 27 for theft or false pretences (the other for ‘supplying liquor to natives’ in 1919), was on the run: ‘he was hitchhiking in Taranaki, and “thumbed” a ride in a police car. He had not gone far when a “wanted” call giving his description and modus operandi came over the radio. Quite unperturbed, he turned to the driver and said, “By Jove, that chap must be a bad b-------”’.1
In the year to July 2018 the numbers of burglaries decreased by 9% compared to the previous 12 months. Over 70% were residential burglaries and most happened in the early afternoon.
Burglaries and thefts have the lowest rates of being solved (around 13% for burglary) as they often occur when the victims are not present, few clues are left and victims are usually unable to identify offenders. While these crimes are common, they usually involve goods of small or moderate value. Less frequent are crimes carried out by professionals in positions of power and authority. These often involve the misappropriation of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars of shareholders’, clients’ or taxpayers’ funds.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s the approach to those involved in theft or burglary was to jail them for terms roughly relative to the scale of the offence. By the 1950s thinking had changed and efforts were made by the police and courts to keep young people out of jail, through the use of fines, probation and periodic detention. The Crimes Act 1961 lays out the punishments for most property crimes. It was amended by the Crimes Amendment Act 2003 with laws revised to deal with crimes involving computers, money laundering and forgery.
Under the Sentencing Act 2002 courts must consider the desirability of keeping offenders in the community rather than sending them to prison, as long as this is practical and does not threaten the safety of others. As a result only 6% of those convicted of theft are imprisoned. The maximum sentence for burglary is 10 years and almost half of those convicted receive a prison sentence.
Car conversions are forms of theft where the value of what is stolen is higher than other forms of theft. Stealing cars constitutes approximately 14% of all crimes against property and about 30% of those convicted for stealing cars go to prison.
Recidivism is very high among those engaged in crimes against property, with thieves and burglars reconvicted more often than any other group of offenders.
Crime prevention and DNA
Young people are overrepresented in theft and burglary statistics. Police have programmes to target youth at risk, and youth education about crime also occurs at schools. In the 21st century police prioritised solving burglaries along with violent and sexual attacks and car theft. One reason was that some burglars went on to commit more serious crimes such as rape.
In the 1990s police adopted a more forensic approach to burglary. The National DNA Databank was established in 1996 to hold DNA of individuals, and the Crime Scene Database was set up in 1998 to hold DNA collected from crime scenes (burglars often cut themselves breaking and entering, leaving behind blood). These databases have been very successful in helping to increase the resolution rate for burglaries. New Zealand was only the second country in the world to set up a DNA profile databank. Some 78% of matches between the two databases come from burglary crime scenes – usually from blood left by the burglar. In 2008 the police adopted a digital fingerprint screening system and a database holding over 500,000 fingerprints which can find a match in seconds.
As burglaries increased during the 1980s property owners adopted better locks, fences, burglar alarms and security patrols to prevent losses. A large security industry has grown in New Zealand to help protect private property.
Another strategy to prevent crimes against property involves reference checks and background checks of criminal records for prospective employees entrusted with handling cash or goods. Yet in many cases, even for high-powered jobs, these are not carried out, or are not done properly.