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How criminal is New Zealand?

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 25 July 2014

Among the raft of data our researchers have compiled for New Zealand by Numbers, there are quite a few surprising facts about New Zealand. Most of us would be aware of the big trends facing this country: the changing face of our population, our increasing interaction with Asia, or the increasing importance of digital technology for the way in which we communicate and receive our news.

Some other developments are less well known but are certainly not less interesting. Take crime and justice, for example.

Reading our newspapers, one might get the impression that little else is happening in New Zealand than the crime stories that often dominate the headlines. Previous research found that about one fifth of all newspaper stories in New Zealand are crime-related; in an international survey of newspapers New Zealand ranked third for its coverage of crime and violent deaths.

With all this publicity given to crime stories, does this mean that New Zealand is a particularly dangerous place? Not quite.

Fortunately, the overall crime rate has fallen in recent years. Whereas in the mid-1990s, there regularly were more than 12,000 recorded crimes per 100,000 population, this rate has fallen to about 8,400 cases today.

A decline in crime rates can be seen across many different crime categories: property crime, homicides, illicit drug crime, white collar crime and benefit fraud. However, crime rates have gone up for sexual assaults and related offences but that may also be due to an increased preparedness of victims to report such crimes.

New Zealand’s crime figures are improving, and they were never particularly high by international standards in the first place. According to a United Nations study, New Zealand belongs to a group of only 26 countries in which the murder rate (incidents per 100,000 population) is below 1.0 (if only narrowly: ours is 0.9). To put this into perspective, the world average rate is 6.3, the average for both Europe and Oceania is 3.0 – and in the United States it is 4.8.

We can only speculate what makes New Zealand such a relatively safe place. Is it our incarceration rate, which stands about a third above the OECD average? Or has it something to do with size of our police force, which has more than doubled since the 1970s? Or is there something law-abiding in our culture?

Perhaps the reason why our newspapers are so full of crime stories is not because there are so many crimes but because of the very opposite: crime is quite uncommon in New Zealand. In other places, it takes the most ghastly murder to make it into the news. In New Zealand, you might have a better chance with a wrongly parked car.

Fortunately, our lives are relatively safe – so New Zealanders can get their thrills elsewhere.

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