In 1950, there were 1,043 New Zealanders in prison. In February 2018, 68 years later, our prison population hit an all-time high of 10,695. The graph below shows the dramatic rise in our rate of imprisonment (the number of people locked up per 100,000 of the population) over this period of time. The graph shows a four-fold increase in the rate – from about 50 inmates (per 100,000 of the population) in 1950, to more than 200 inmates per 100,000 in 2018. This has led to a ten-fold increase (that’s 1,000%) in the total number of inmates since 1950.
Over this time, both Labour and National led governments have built more and more prisons to accommodate the growing muster. In February 2018, Stuff reported the extent of the problem with this headline: “Prisons under ‘immense pressure’ with only enough space for 300 more inmates”.
In response, a mega prison holding up to 3,000 inmates has been planned at Waikeria at an estimated cost of $1 billion, with prison expansion expected to cost $2.5 billion over the next five years. That’s on top of Corrections annual operating budget of $1.5 billion. If the mega prison is built, one thing is certain – it will fill up.
The crime rate is on the decline
If there had also been a 1,000% increase in the number of serious crimes during the same period of time – or a four fold increase in the crime rate – then we might need to keep all these people in prison. But that’s not the case. While crime statistics were on the rise from 1970 up to the mid 1990s, since then they have declined. The graph below (right) appears to show that the number of offences peaked around 1992.
It is important to note that not all crime is reported, so the ‘offence rate’ is not entirely reliable. Each year it also includes thousands of non-violent crimes which may not lead to a prison sentence.
The homicide rate
The number of murders that occur each year is a more reliable indicator of the level of crime in society – especially violent crime – because it is almost impossible to kill someone without that coming to the attention of the police.
The murder rate is also on the decline in New Zealand. In 2009, the NZ Herald reported NZ’s murder rate has halved in past 20 years even though, that year, 127 Kiwis were murdered. In 2014, there were 66 murders. Using this as our measure, the level of violent crime in New Zealand continues to decline.
If crime is down, but the number of people in prison keeps rising, then something is wrong with our sentencing laws. For more on that issue, see Why does New Zealand lock up so many people?
The reality is we don’t need another prison. In fact, we need to cut the muster by at least 30%. Why? For a number of reasons, but primarily because the cost is unsustainable. We also need to do it in the next six years. Why? The reason is obvious: the current Labour-led government could be out of office by then.
There are four quick-fix solutions to the problem:
1) Repeal the Bail Amendment Act of 2013 which has led to an additional 1,500 prisoners held on remand.
2) Abolish very short sentences of six months or less. Each year thousands of prisoners serve short sentences; at any one time, there are approximately 560 serving less than six months.
3) Give suspended prisons sentences to offenders whose crimes are serious enough to warrant a sentence between six and 12 months. At any one time, there are approximately 850 prisoners in this category.
4) Allow more prisoners to be automatically released after serving half their sentence. If this regulation applied to prisoners serving five years or less (instead of the current two years or less), it would lower the muster by a further 700 or more.
These strategies are described in detail here and will reduce the prison muster to around 7,000 within the next six years.
If you want to help persuade the Government to cut the prison population, and you don’t want New Zealand to waste $2.5 billion on more prisons, sign the letter of petition here. It will be sent automatically to the appropriate Government Ministers.