Dramatic Drop in the Prison Population

Prior to 2017, New Zealand’s prisons were bursting at the seams – and the Government were building a new one virtually every year.  Prisons are expensive. So Andrew Little, the newly elected Minister of Justice at the time announced that Labour would reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years. They achieved it in five.

When Labour took office, there were over 10,500 Kiwis in prison. At the start of 2022, the muster fell to about 7,500, which is a drop of 28%. Since then, the numbers have gone up again and, in June this year, reached 8,610. Overall, this is an 18% reduction during Labour’s six years in office.

In December 2022, the Justice Sector released a 124 page document, titled Imprisonment in New Zealand: Long-Term Insights On Imprisonment, 1960 TO 2050. It explains some of the factors which led to this remarkable drop in the prison population.

There are two kinds of prisoners: those who have been sentenced and those who have not – known as prisoners on remand. Judges may remand a defendant into prison if they think he or she poses a risk of further offending, or if the offender simply has nowhere to live if granted bail.

It claims that the prison population began to decline in 2018.  Between June 2018 and June 2022, the number of sentenced prisoners fell by 37% from 7,230 to 4,590.  According to the justice sector, three factors have contributed to this decline.

The drop in sentenced prisoners 

  • There was a change in sentencing patterns following the introduction of the Sentencing Act in 2017. The changes enabled judges to make greater use of intensive supervision which enables offenders to access treatment in the community, and avoid the disruption to relationships, employment, and housing that goes with short prison sentences.  Judges were able to order defendants to be drug tested and to impose conditions requiring abstinence from alcohol and drugs. More electronic monitoring options also became available to support the enforcement of conditions.
  • There was, and still is, a growing backlog of cases in the courts which began prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, but which was compounded by the pandemic. Much of the backlog relates to defendants pleading not guilty when facing serious charges.  Between 30 June 2018 and 30 June 2022, the number of cases waiting trial involving serious violence increased by 90%.  In the same period, offences for Class A drug dealing increased by 48%.  While these defendants wait for their case to proceed, some may be remanded in prison, but many are not. This also slowed down the number of people being sent to prison.
  • Then in 2019, the Court of Appeal changed sentencing guidelines related to class A drugs. The new guidelines allow for more lenient sentences to be imposed if the judge determines that addiction played a part in a drug dealer’s offending. Since the new guideline was issued, people convicted of dealing in Class A drugs have been less likely to be imprisoned or have received shorter sentences. The imprisonment rate for methamphetamine dealing fell from 68% to 47%, and average sentence lengths reduced from four years, four months to three years, six months. This also reduced the number of Class A drug offenders in prison.

The drop in remand prisoners

The decline in the remand population began in 2020, but was driven by a different set of factors.

  • The drop in the number of prisoners on remand was largely caused by the Covid 19 lockdown in April 2020. Because virtually everything closed down, there was an immediate drop in the number of people being prosecuted in court. Judges had less interactions in court and so focused on sentencing offenders who were already on remand. They sentenced them to prison or to a community-based sentence.  Both options reduced the total number of prisoners on remand.
  • For those on bail in the community, successive lockdowns in Auckland, reduced their opportunities to commit further crime. This meant they were less likely to breach bail and end up in prison.  In 2021, the number of defendants who committed breaches decreased by 13%, which also contributed to the drop in prisoners on remand.
  • The Corrections Department also contributed to the drop in prisoners on remand by establishing bail houses and assisting offenders into them.  70% of those in prisonstruggle with literacy.  Corrections created a Bail Support Service and appointed Bail Officers to help prisoners on remand with the paperwork. Bail officers also liaise with defence counsel and try to get the defendant’s bail application before a judge within a week. This has helped to cut the amount of time that prisoners spend on remand.

The 2023 election was held this week. National and ACT will be charge, perhaps with ‘help’ from Winston Peters. Before the election, they were all talking tough on crime. The prison population is likely to skyrocket again – at substantial cost to the taxpayer. There’s only one strategy that’s really tough on crime – drug courts, which help to keep people out of prison.