1) Isn’t the record high prison population the result of New Zealand’s high crime rate?
No, its not. The prison population has been going up for 30 years while the crime rate in New Zealand has been going down. In 2014, Police Commissioner Mike Bush was quoted in the NZ Herald with the headline: ‘Crime rate falls to 29-year low.’ It’s still dropping. In 2017 the Salvation Army, State of the Nation report said the number of adults convicted of criminal offences had fallen 35% since 2010.
The reason the prison muster has gone up while the crime rate has gone down is because the crime rate and prison rate are driven by entirely different factors. The level of crime in society is driven by factors such as poverty, poor housing, unemployment, the gap between the rich and the poor, the breakdown of family structures, the loss of cultural identity, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health problems, feelings of alienation and so on.
The rate of imprisonment is driven by penal populism – the passing of ‘tough on crime’ legislation in response to the moral panic perpetrated by the media when isolated incidents of violence occur. Criminology Professor John Pratt describes the process like this:
“Crime in this country has stabilised since 1995-96. There is absolutely no growth in crime in New Zealand. Law and order is simply not the issue in this society. But the Sensible Sentencing Trust captured the attention of the media and quite skilfully manipulated them, and the politicians fell into step with that.”
2) If offenders are bailed into the community instead of being remanded in prison, won’t they re-offend while on bail?
If we assume that the primary role of government is to protect the citizens of the country, then New Zealand is doing an outstanding job. Internationally, New Zealand is rated as the second safest country in the world. However, if we assume that another of government’s roles is to enhance the well-being of its citizens, then some, including many Maori are not doing so well. Statistically, Maori fall behind other New Zealanders in a variety of indices including health, education, suicide, and mortality. More than fifty percent of those in prison are Maori. These issues pose a risk to the cohesion, the well-being and, ultimately, the safety of society.
The government always has limited resources and so has to balance its spending between these two priorities – protecting its citizens and enhancing their overall welfare. Since the crime rate has been dropping for 30 years, and we are the second safest country in the world, there is clearly not much more that needs to be done to protect us. However, there is a great deal that needs to be done to lift New Zealanders out of poverty, solve the housing crisis, lower the suicide rate, the road toll, and address alcohol and drug related harm in society.
There is always a risk that people may offend while on bail. But locking up more and more Kiwis, especially those who have not yet been convicted, is a dubious use of limited resources.
There is always a risk that people may offend while on bail. But locking up more and more Kiwis, especially those who have not yet been convicted, is a dubious use of limited resources. This is taxpayer funding that could be used to tackle the social issues which contribute to offending in the first place.
By way of analogy: if you are a builder, you can’t treat every issue as a nail and just hit it with a hammer. You need bolts and steel girders to hold things together and you need to use every tool at your disposal. Similarly, the government cannot address every behavioural problem in society just by locking people up. We need to use a variety of strategies to build a more harmonious society.
3) Don’t we need a new prison to replace old ones which are no longer fit for purpose.
No we don’t. Most of the old prisons in New Zealand have already been shut down. Mt Crawford prison in Wellington closed in 2008. The old Mt Eden prison in Auckland closed in 2011. The New Plymouth Prison closed in 2013. Some older units at Arohata, Rolleston, Rangipo and Waikeria prisons have also been closed. Between 1999 and 2008, the fifth Labour government built four new prisons so these old ones could be shut down.
Waikeria prison was built in 1911 but only operated as a men’s prison since 1985. Currently it holds 778 inmates. In addition to wanting to build another prison because of the blowout in the prison muster, Corrections has tried to argue that the facilities at Waikeria need to be replaced because they are too old and not conducive to rehabilitation. This is a red herring. The Department’s rehabilitation programmes make almost no difference to re-offending rates because prison itself is not conducive to rehabilitation. It makes no difference whether rehabilitation programmes are offered in old facilities or new ones. The outcome is the same.
It makes no difference whether rehabilitation programmes are offered in old facilities or new ones. The outcome is the same.
If the three strategies proposed on this website were implemented by the Labour-led government, the prison population will be cut by 3,000 to 4,000 over the next three years. If the Corrections Department is concerned that the existing facilities at Waikeria are not fit for purpose, then they can be closed. In addition to not building a new prison, we won’t need the old one either.
4) Have any other countries successfully lowered the number of people in prison without an increase in crime?
Yes. The following countries have successfully reduced the use of imprisonment without any significant increase in crime:
- Sweden: Why is Sweden closing its prisons? The Guardian, December 2013.
“Sweden’s prison population has dropped so dramatically that the country plans to close four of its prisons.”
- Holland: Dutch Get Creative to Solve a Prison Problem: Too Many Empty Cells – NYT, February, 2017.
“About a third of Dutch prison cells sit empty, according to the Ministry of Justice. Criminologists attribute the situation to a spectacular fall in crime over the past two decades and an approach to law enforcement that prefers rehabilitation to incarceration.”
- Finland: How Finland reduced its prison population – Victims & Offenders Journal, June, 2010.
“The fact that crime rates in Finland did not drastically differ from those of its neighbors even as it minimized the use of incarceration suggests that it is possible for a nation to reduce its incarceration rate without placing public safety at an elevated risk.”
- Germany: What We Learned From German Prisons, NYT, August 2015.
“More than 80% of those convicted of crimes in Germany receive sentences of “day fines” (based on the offense and the offender’s ability to pay). Only 5 percent end up in prison. Of those who do, about 70% have sentences of less than two years.”
- The United States: National Imprisonment and Crime Rates Continue to Fall -PEW December 2016
“Crime dropped faster in 2015 in states with larger prison declines.”
5) Don’t we need cross-party agreement to lower the prison population?
That would help, but it’s not realistic in New Zealand’s political system. As Kiwis get used to working with MMP, agreements between political parties may become more common. But for the last 30 years, our politics have been dominated by National and Labour who have competed to be ‘tough on crime’.
Between December 1999 and 19 November 2008, the fifth Labour government built four new prisons. When National came to power, they built another one to replace the aging Mt Eden prison. They planned another at Waikeria even though Bill English declared in 2011 that ‘prisons are a moral and fiscal failure’ and we should never build another.
Only two political parties, Labour and The Opportunities Party, have ever announced a goal or intention to actually reduce the prison muster.
Despite Mr English’s declaration, National has shown no inclination to reduce the number of people in prison. Instead, during its last term in government, it set a goal to reduce reoffending by 25%, but failed to get anywhere near this target.
Only two political parties, Labour and The Opportunities Party, have ever announced a goal or intention to actually reduce the prison muster (as opposed to National’s goal to reduce re-offending). But Labour is in a coalition with New Zealand First and the Greens, not the TOP Party. And it is not entirely clear that NZ First is on board with the plan. So far, Winston Peters has not publicly supported it.
So, yes some cross-party agreement is required – mainly between Labour, NZ First and the Greens. If you want to encourage New Zealand First to cooperate on this issue, you can sign the petition here.
6) Isn’t the parole board responsible for the early release of long term prisoners?
Yes it is. Prior to 2002, those serving a sentence of less than 14 years were eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence. Those serving 14 years or more could all be considered after seven years. Those serving less than seven years were seen by District Prison Boards rather than the Parole Board, but their functions were very similar. Since the Parole Act of 2002 came into effect, the Board sees all prisoners with sentences of more than two years.
When considering whether or not to release a particular prisoner before the end of his sentence, the Board is charged with deciding whether he (or she) still poses an ‘undue risk’ to the safety of the community. The Parole Act does not define what ‘undue risk’ actually means; this is left up to Board members to decide. Not surprisingly, different members of the Board interpret risk and safety in different ways.
Since Judge Warwick Gendall was appointed as chairman of the Board in 2012, the Board has become increasingly risk averse. Most long term prisoners now serve three quarters of their entire sentence.
But the Parole Board has no say in the release of short term prisoners – those serving sentences of two years or less. The Act requires short term prisoners to be released automatically after serving exactly half their sentence. So if these quick fix strategies are introduced, some prisoners currently classified as long term will be reclassified as short term; the ability of the Parole Board to make them serve almost their entire sentence will be removed.
7) Does sending people to prison deter them from re-offending?
It might – for a select group of offenders who feel ashamed at where they have ended up. But a wealth of research concludes that, in general, imprisonment does not deter re-offending. This is a counter-intuitive outcome, because common sense suggests that having been sent to prison, no one would want to go back. There are two elements to this common sense theory of deterrence.
1) Individual deterrence is based on the assumption that punishing an offender, by sending them to prison for instance, will deter them from committing further crime. There is very little, if any, evidence to indicate this works. One of the reasons it doesn’t work is because up to 80% of crime in New Zealand is committed under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Individuals who are drunk, or high on methamphetamine, generally have little ability to reflect on the consequences of their actions.
Similarly, many of those who end up in prison also have mental health problems. For instance, when someone is depressed and their life is falling apart, they may commit crime because they no longer care what happens to them. Finally, consider how domestic violence occurs. Such crimes are often committed in the heat of the moment; overcome by anger, frustration or rage, the possibility of going to prison doesn’t even enter the offender’s head.
2) General deterrence is the assumption that if offenders are punished, this will deter other people from committing the same or similar crimes. This may apply to respectable, middle-class, pro-social individuals. But it has little impact on the kind of offenders such as those described above (or with this profile) who tend to end up in prison. To illustrate: sending a gang member to prison is unlikely to have any effect on the behaviour of other gang members. For some gangs, time in prison is seen as a badge of honour.
Policy advisors in the New Zealand Corrections Department are well aware that prison does not act as deterrent. In 2001, the Department released a 50 page booklet called About Time – Turning people away from a life of crime. It contained the following information about deterrence:
“A recent research paper from the Office of the Solicitor General of Canada brings together the results of 50 studies of the deterrent effect of imprisonment involving over 300,000 offenders. None of the analyses found imprisonment reduced recidivism.
“Longer sentences were (also) not associated with reduced recidivism. In fact the opposite was found. Longer sentences were associated with a 3% increase in recidivism. This finding suggests some support for the theory that prison may serve as a ‘school for crime’ for some offenders.”
8) Don’t we need some long term solutions as well as quick fix strategies?
Definitely. In addition to short term strategies to cut the prison muster quickly, we also need to slow down the number of people entering prison in the first place. We also need strategies to reduce re-offending by prisoners when they get out. But unless we cut the muster soon, that 3,000 bed mega prison will be built. One thing is certain. If it gets built, it will fill up.
If we rely solely on long term strategies, the Labour-led government will likely be out of office before they have a chance to take effect.
By cutting the prison population quickly using short term strategies, New Zealand can avoid the need for a new prison. That will give the Government six years of breathing space to develop and implement effective long term strategies.
One strategy that has been suggested by Justice Minister, Andrew Little, is to roll out the use of drug courts. At the moment there are only two drug courts in the whole country, both in Auckland. These courts are very effective at helping offenders get on top of their alcohol and drug problems but they’re slow. On average it takes 18 months for each offender to go through the process.
There are many other long term strategies which will reduce the number of New Zealanders ending up in prison. But if we rely solely on these long term solutions, the Labour-led government will likely be out of office before these strategies have a chance to take effect.