Interview with Dr Ronald Kramer about crime and punishment

In 2014, Michael Botur interviewed Dr Ronald Kramer about how we build up and tear down violent offenders in New Zealand. 

Dr Kramer is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Auckland whose research  focuses on how power asymmetries impact our thinking about crime and deviance, and how they shape everyday practices within criminal justice systems. 


Ronald Kramer says it’s easier to put one person in the dock than 4.4 million. “We shouldn’t try spot killers: we should spot problems in the social order connected to these problems. My idea of a cure is using the $90,000 annually spent on each prisoner to instead provide rehabilitative services, housing, or social security. People say you go to prison and you do your time, but you don’t: you’re stigmatised for life.” Ronald Kramer photo

The young, soft-spoken, skinny Aussie-American has brought his international expertise to the University of Auckland. We have one of the lowest murder rates in the world – around one in 10,000 – but Kramer’s been asking why civilians still feel unsafe. “The murderers I’ve met are very nice and polite, it’s strange, they invite me to dinner and coffee, they’re so polite you think ‘How did this happen?’ It makes me realise: Anybody could have the capacity to do this action. We all have the capacity to have emotion trained out of us. We need different notions of masculinity, more equitable distribution of power, and more support services for those women who kill, so they can get out of dependant relationships.”

“We have this image of murderers as abominable human beings, but killings happen in an instant. We make out that killings are representative of their character but in a lot of cases murder is extreme and out of the ordinary. It doesn’t make killers fundamentally different people. They’re still human, they experience guilt, remorse and regret like other people.”

Repentance schmentance: Kramer says the Western justice system demands that prisoners experience a quality of life lower than that of the lowest working class. “One of the biggest mistruths out there is that there is leniency for offenders. Treatment of offenders is quite severe in New Zealand compared to Nordic countries. Not reintegrating people just compounds and furthers their exclusion.”

“Punishments in general don’t have a deterrent effect – especially prison. We’ve had prisons for a very long time, but crime keeps on happening.”


“Crimes of passion are to do with our social and cultural upbringing. Why is it that young men feel insulted by minor things? Why do women abused by their spouses kill? It’s killing with an emotional investment but with a calculated strategy. That falls between hot blooded and cold blooded.”

“There’s a difference between irrational crimes of passion and non-rational killings. Non-rational ones are something that doesn’t make sense but which we can understand. I would put young men killing young men into that category. If someone steps on your shoes, or insults you, killing them is an overreaction, but in our cultural context I understand they’re following a cultural code. Men are encouraged to see insults as a threat or attack on themselves more so than women.”

“The guy [Bruce Emery] who killed the tagger in Manurewa? That’s an extreme overreaction which came after media stories constructing how graffiti is a social problem. I can see how this would create in someone the sense that it’s more of an offence than it really is. That’s non-rational.”

Murder to conceal a crime is another category that falls somewhere outside of rationality.

Once again, it’s hard to find examples of the purposeful and inexplicable cold-blooded killings the media and Sensible Sentencing Trust want us to fear.


“That’s to do with how police focus their efforts– it’s not an accurate reflection of the nature of crime.’

“Murder following rape comes back to masculinity. We’re culturally encouraged to adopt the view of men’s power. Rape followed by murder is an extreme extension of otherwise normalised behaviours.”


“One system of punishment is that a penalty is set aside in exchange for a crime. Once done, you should be released. But there’s this other conception that prison should be to reintegrate and reform people, and to assess their viability to fit into society. Extracting confessions, guilt and remorse is a manifestation of punishment, to create a certain moral individual.”

“NZ has preventative detention which is about keeping people in prison if we think they constitute a risk – eg. if they don’t display remorse – but that allows us to keep people in prison because we think they MIGHT do something. That’s profoundly at odds with basic principles of Western justice. Preventative detention is rationalised because paedophiles are recidivists, preventative detention is sold to the public. If a person has done their time, it shouldn’t matter whether an offender panders to expectations or not. Judging people as to whether they are fit for inclusion into society leads to eugenics.”

Beyond the Darklands stories chronicle killers from birth, as if people are born bad, and the show twists real events to make it appear that every event or trait in a person’s life contributes to what happens 40 years later. The episode profiling Liam Reid, for example, claims that Reid writing poetry and cuddling pet bunnies somehow contributed to a fake persona as a tough guy which somehow contributed to the murder and rapes he committed.


“You can’t establish causality, in the case of kids being cruel to animals. A lot of people who engage in antisocial behaviours don’t commit murder. It goes back to the question: can we punish and control because we’re predicting offending? It’s like Minority Report. Do we want to think we can predict what people will do and punish on that basis? Do we want to emphasise traits in people? Are you going to say that somebody who smokes marijuana should be charged with methamphetamine use because there is a progression?”

“Who’s responsible for being anti-social in the first place? Maybe it’s because of a breakdown in teaching and socialisation. You can’t just put it all down to personal responsibility.”

“A lot of reasons for crime begin with social problems: poverty is tense, anxiety provoking, it makes people need to release anger, that’s the broader context. Some people may recidivate, and we blame the individual, but we don’t say ‘What did we as a society do to stop this?’ I know a few people who have committed murder and been released, they haven’t done it again; if a murder came in an irrational moment, it probably won’t happen again.”


“The justice system assumes that we’re all rational actors, and that’s not borne out in most cases. That’s why punishments aren’t deterrent. Some behaviours are governed by rationalistic thinking – such as the consequences of not paying for a parking ticket. But in things like violence and murder, people aren’t carefully thinking, it’s heat of the moment stuff, that’s why prison doesn’t deter murderers.”

Kramer is well aware of the one-punch tragedies that killed Billy Dawson and Tarun Asthana on Auckland’s Viaduct in 2011 and 2013. “Mistakes happen, in that people went too far and didn’t think about the intention of what was happening.  That’s a category of murder. But there’s a problem with judging on the basis of consequences. The eye for an eye mentality is still with us. It’s a political platform; the Sensible Sentencing Trust are a manifestation of that. Victim impact statements have been introduced in court – but other countries don’t accept these. Victims shouldn’t have too much say in court proceedings and legal decision making because they’re emotive, they want vengeance, and they’re in a media context focused on victim’s rights and punitiveness (sic). It’s unlikely they’ll look at it objectively as justice.”

“I’m surprised the NZ media is allowed to take pictures of someone in the dock or name them. The dock is a mini-prison in the courtroom which conveys guilt, demonises and suggests you need to be separated from society.”

“Individualistic thinking locates the causes of behaviour within a person’s psyche –but the trait to kill exists in all of us. Or it can be bred in us, whether it’s war, cold-blooded environmental pollution, colonialism, swatting mosquitoes or eating meat.”

“The argument that a leopard never changes its spots is based on the assumption whether we convict people based on what we think they’ll do, or what they’ve done. It’s a risky game. It can’t be reconciled with our broader principles of justice.”


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