Playing the Victim (My Morning at CYFS)

All names except for Ross’s name have been changed in this post.

As obsessive followers of me on Twitter (you know who you are, Ross) will recall, in my first week of my new job at MIT in Otara, my scooter was stolen from the MIT carpark building at 11 in the morning. The first I heard of it was receiving a phone call from a blocked number four times in a row, before a message was left. So I check the message.

“Yes, it’s Susan from the Auckland Police here. I’m calling because three odd young men were seen taking a motorcycle registered to you from the MIT carpark. If that motorcycle is still yours, please call me back.”

After a little calling around, I am finally put through to Susan Without a Surname who called me.

“Hi, you left a message saying my scooter was stolen?”

“Oh, yes, yes. They’ve apprehended them, too,” she says.

“Someone’s been arrested? You’ve got my bike?”

“Yes, it was quite a bit of excitement. We got Eagle 1 out for it and everything.”

I pause. “Wait, you had a chopper out looking for my scooter? Are you serious? I didn’t even know it was missing.”

I add that the scooter itself is probably not worth the price of the gas the chopper used.

“Oh, well, if we didn’t get it out for this kind of thing, they’d never get to fly it.”

So I wander down the road to the address where a police officer is waiting with my scooter. On the way, I realise that I probably stand to be fined more than the scooter’s worth when he notices there’s no warrant or registration.

It’s covered in what turns out to be fingerprint dust (which is a hell of a thing to get off). I’m told that the young men who took it were 15 years old. The officer wants a list of damages for his report, and I’m forced to admit that most of what looks like damage from the kids is actually damage from my wife and neighbours routinely backing into it.

“They’ve tried to jimmy the ignition, is all,” I say. “They’ve popped out the seal thing around it.”

“Where’s your warrant and registration?” asks the officer, inevitably.

“I’m juuuuuust on my way to get it,” say I.

“Hmmm,” he says. “Anything else you want on the report? About what you want to happen to the kids?”

“Whatever’s best for them,” I say. “I’d prefer alternatives to punitives.”

He makes a note of that.

A few weeks later, I get a phone call from Jack from CYFS. He asks me to please attend a Family Group Conference with the 15-year-old who stole my scooter. I say that I will, and he emails me the details.

That evening, I happened to be catching up with a friend who’s a retired South Auckland police detective. I ask him what to expect.

“They can be really depressing,” he says. “There will be lies. There will be a lawyer there whose job is to get the kid off everything. Mostly they lie about whether or not they’ve done community service. Half the time people don’t check up on it.”

“However,” he adds. “You’ll get to have a say in his punishment, if you want. You could get him to come to your place and clean your bike, for example.”

And I check the CYFS description of a Family Group Conference, which is a little more upbeat.

So yesterday morning, I wander down the road to CYFS. Everything in Otara seems to be wandering distance from each other. I meet Jack, the facilitator, and I’m taken into a room with the following people…

  • Jack, the facilitator
  • Jill, the police officer
  • Nathan, the young person in question
  • Nathan’s mum and dad and little sister
  • A youth worker (awesome guy)
  • Nathan’s court-appointed lawyer
  • Nathan’s lay advocate


The first thing that happens is we go around in a circle and introduce ourselves and our role in things.

“I’m Ryan,” I say. “The victim.”

Jack asks the family if they want to kick things off with a karakia or prayer or anything, and we all bow our heads as Nathan’s mother stands and says a prayer in her own language (Samoan, I think).

Jack tells us that Officer Jill will read the charges and Nathan will say whether or not he admits that they’re accurate. If he says no, we all go home and it goes to court. If he says yes, we continue. Jill reads a detailed description of how Nathan and his friend stole my scooter, which is really interesting to me. They basically just rocked up and wheeled it out, then down the road, through a backyard and into a shed in an unoccupied property.

I should describe Nathan at this point. Nathan’s a big kid. 15 years old, sure, but pretty solid and probably almost my 6’1″ in height. He’s mumbled everything he’s said so far, and his elbows are on his knees and he’s just staring straight at the floor.

Nathan mumbles something. His lawyer asks him again. “Yeah, I did it,” says Nathan.

Jack turns to me and tells me that we’re now at the point where I can give my point of view.

“Um,” I say. “Uh. I guess I wouldn’t mind knowing why, first. Like, what were you thinking?”

Jack turns to Nathan. “Nathan? Do you want to tell Ryan why you stole his scooter?”

Nathan turns to me, maybe the first time he’s looked up so far. “We thought it would be fun,” he says. “We just had nothing to do and we saw it and thought it would be fun to take it.”

“Well,” I say to him. “That was pretty fucking stupid, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he says, already back to staring at the floor.

So I say to everyone, “Look, it’s a pretty banged-up scooter. It’s not worth a whole lot, but it’s how I get around at the moment and I’m pretty attached to it. The kids fucked the ignition and I haven’t had a chance to get that fixed, because I’d have to leave it with the mechanic place for a few days, and I need it to get to work.  But it still goes, and it’s not like Nathan punched me in the face or anything. There’s practically no harm done, and I forgive you,” saying the last bit to him.

Jack asks Nathan if he’d like to apologise.

Nathan looks up again and mumbles, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry we took your bike. I just…” And he’s a 15-year-old kid surrounded by eight adults who are all there because he did a Bad Thing and everyone’s looking at him and he doesn’t know what else to say and I feel really, really sorry for him.

“Sweet as,” I say to break the silence. “Just don’t do it again, okay?”

He says, “I won’t,” and I walk over and shake his hand.

“Right!” I say. “That’s me done. I’m off back to work.”

“Wait,” says Nathan’s mother. “I want to apologise to you too.”

“Okay.” Sitting again.

“We’re really sorry he did this thing. And we want you to be paid for getting the ignition fixed. We want him to pay you for it.”

Fair enough. I won’t say no.

Facilitator Jack turns to me again. “Is there anything else you want? Would you like him to do some community service?”

So I turn to Nathan and I say, “Nathan,” and he looks up. And I say, “Nathan, I’ve done some pretty shitty things to people in my time and felt pretty bad about it and I don’t always have a way to make it up to them, and I know something from experience. You actually feel bad about this?” He nods. “Well, you probably should, and I can tell you one of the best ways to feel better about having done something shitty to someone is to do something nice for someone else. It won’t make it all better, but it helps.”

Nathan nods. Maybe all in one ear and out the other. Who knows. So I tell them I’m fine with community service and I’d like Nathan to pick something he thinks will help people and I’m glad he’s getting a mentor and will be staying in school, etc. And I leave them to the rest of the meeting.

The facilitator is going to keep me posted on how things go with Nathan. As I write this, he’s in court and the outcomes of our conference are being communicated to the judge or whoever.

I was struck by the number of people being paid to be in that room at once time. Lawyer, lay advocate (maybe unpaid), police officer, youth worker, facilitator. But if it’s effective (and CYFS claims a low reoffending rate for kids who go through this process and its follow-up), worth every cent.

All in all, an interesting experience.

Individual Responsibility

So, rather than removing personal responsibility from the picture, the naturalistic worldview shows that holding people accountable is actually an essential part of the chain of causation that can shape good behavior. Furthermore, naturalism makes us more likely to be compassionate and effective in how we hold people accountable, since as we’ve seen it undercuts justifications for harsh punishment that ignore the causes of crime.

Good to see that someone wrote it, saving me the trouble of doing so. This article is about how the notion of personal responsibility can be incorporated sensibly into a deterministic (read: non-magical) view of human behaviour. [Later edit: sadly, this article has disappeared from the internet. Please leave a comment if you can find it.]

Taking the Lead out of the Crime Pencil. Yes, that’s it.

Who knew he fought violent crime too?
I’ve explained before that free will is superstitious nonsense. The reasons for a person’s actions are determined by factors outside of their control – this is a logical necessity. And so the rational way to treat crime is as a sickness with causes, rather than a sin of volition.

Put me in charge of parking fines in Auckland City, and I can make a statistically significant number of drivers pay for parking – by doubling the fines. Nothing else will have changed, except for me upping the fines, and that will change their behaviour. External factors.

It’s fairly well known that the book Freakonomics claimed that crime rates in the US markedly dropped as a result of legalised abortions. 20 years later, there was a generation of unwanted 20-year-olds born to impoverished young single mothers who didn’t exist to join gangs and smoke the marijuana like a cigarette. Crime, which had been a growing concern in the US, plummeted.

The Independent is now reporting that crime has dropped due to leaded petrol being banned. Lead had been associated with minor brain damage in children exposed to it – potentially resulting in higher rates of criminal behaviour as adults. The UK was one of the last developed countries to ban lead in petrol, and it’s the last to see a significant drop in crime.

To be concerned more with the long-term causes of crime than the immediate prevention and punishment of criminals in the short term is typically a left-wing political perspective. Right-wing politics are often identified with harsher sentencing and more police powers – whether due to the ideology of the politicians or the simple practicality of an easily grabbed senior-citizen vote.

Unfortunately, people have very short memories, and policies that have long-term reductive effects on crime are seldom appreciated in the form of popular political support. In other words, if you’re asked what you’re going to do about crime, and you say you’ll remove its causes 20 years from now and the other guy says he’ll make “life mean life”, you’ll lose, and 20 years later, crime won’t have dropped off.

No more wall candy, people.

Doing Your Time

The topic of the day, besides changing Shortland Street actresses, seems to be violent criminals being paroled and then going on P-fuelled rampages. The term comes from the French word for “word” – the idea being that a convicted criminal can give his word that he won’t break certain rules, and so he’s allowed out of prison.

Now, whether or not that’s a good idea naturally comes down to your attitude towards prison and the justice system in general. What is the justice system for? And does parole help towards that goal?

Stephen Franks says parole’s pointless. He reckons that by (further) lowering the odds of spending a lot of time in jail, the gambling mind of the criminal is even more likely to commit crimes. Also, criminals aren’t serving the sentence they’ve been given. Graeme Edgler explains non-parole periods of imprisonment as the actual punishment, and the maximum sentence provides protection to the community. He says, “The existence of a system of parole means we can keep certain criminals in prison even after their punishment is over, if their release would pose a risk to the community.”

Both attitudes are to some extent tainted by the superstitious idea of “deserving punishment”. A popular concern with parole – especially with the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which embodies the superstition – is that criminals are getting off easy, without having been punished with the suffering they deserve.

I’ll try to explain this bizarre idea of “deserving” and “punishment”, in case you’re not familiar with it. Basically, these think that humans have a thing they call “free will”. It’s never really clear what this thing is, but it’s sort of the idea that when you make a choice, even though you chose to do one thing, you could have chosen to do something else. It’s as if you can totally step out of yourself and your situation and choose without any of those things that make choice possible (upbringing, hormones, emotions, etc.)

To make things worse, there are “good” actions and “evil” actions, and if you choose to do an “evil” action, you accumulate invisible points in a magical invisible scale in space or something. This is called “guilt”. And once you have accumulated invisible guilt points, the world will be a better place after you have suffered. And since the world doesn’t always make guilty people suffer, we have to do the job ourselves, and even up the invisible point scales by inflicting suffering on those who have accumated invisible guilt points. And failing to inflict that suffering is an evil action itself, and you can get invisible guilt points for it.

So when it comes to criminals, they’re people who chose to do evil things, even though they could have – and “should have” – done good things instead, and so they have invisible guilt points and the justice system makes the world a better place by inflicting suffering on them. The more evil the action, the more suffering it takes to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, these poor, deluded individuals have been rather influential in the past, and so the justice system has traditionally been more interested in evening up the invisible scales than actually reducing evil actions. Partly because to suggest that you can systematically reduce crime is to suggest that maybe crime has causes, rather than it just being those instances when people use their free will to choose to be evil.

On top of that, once the invisible scales have been evened up, there’s no reason left to inflict suffering on someone, so it’s good to let them go back into the community, no matter what kind of person they may still be.

If they were really concerned with reducing crime and not evening up invisible scales, the whole emphasis of the justice system would be on:

    1. Prevention – looking at the factors that cause people to commit crimes, and reducing them.


  • Protection – of the community from people who have proven themselves dangerous.



  • Rehabilitation – methods of changing people from being the kind who commit crimes to the kind that don’t want to.



  • Disincentive – a poor substitute for (1) and (3).


That would have two consequences for parole. Firstly, if a person has proved themselves to be a violent, dangerous person, they should not be allowed out until they have proven themselves to be a social, non-dangerous person. Secondly, the complete emphasis of prisons should be on rehabilitation, with no superstitious ideas of “punishment” getting in the way of that project.