We lock up more people than numerous corrupt, undemocratic, war-torn countries

In September 2017,  there were  10,470 Kiwis in prison. This means we lock up 217 people per 100,000 of our population. Our high rate of imprisonment means New Zealand locks up far more of its citizens than many countries which have some of the most undemocratic and corrupt justice systems in the world. For instance, Tunisia at 206, Mexico at 169, Zimbabwe at 120 and Myanmar at 109 all have lower prison rates than ours.

In fact, New Zealand now has a higher rate of imprisonment than 160 other countries.

Rates of imprisonment (prisoners per 100,000 of population) compared with third world, corrupt, undemocratic, war torn countries 

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies (Highest to lowest) – as at February 2018.

  • New Zealand            217    –  which is rated the 2nd most peaceful country in the world
  • Tunisia                         206   –  where protests inspired the Arab Spring in 2010
  • Honduras                    200   –  which has the highest murder rate in the world
  • Kazakhstan                 194   –   where the authoritarian government has a history of human rights abuses
  • Venezuela                   173    –  which is in a state of economic chaos
  • Philippines                  172    –  where they shoot drug dealers in the street
  • Mexico                         169    –  which is riven by war between drug cartels
  • Algeria                         155     –  where there was a civil between 1991–2002 and protests from 2010
  • Myanmar                    145     –  where the Rohinga have recently been expelled or killed
  • Lebanon                      128     –  which since 2004 has witnessed a series of bombings and assassinations
  • Iraq                               123     –  which is still at war after the Americans got rid of Sadam Hussein
  • Zimbabwe                   120     –  where Robert Mugabe used to lock up political rivals
  • China                            118     –  where being a civil rights lawyer can land you in prison
  • Libya                               99     –  where rival militias compete for control
  • Afghanistan                   75     –  which has been invaded by Russia and then America for over 20 years
  • Yemen                            53     –   which has been in a state of civil war 2015


Comparison with ‘civilised’ western democracies

New Zealand also compares badly with other western democracies with which we have a lot in common.  For instance, in England and Wales, the rate of imprisonment is only 143. In Scotland its 135. In Australia, 167. In Canada it’s 114.

Our crime rate is similar to these western democracies, but for some reason we lock up a lot more people per capita. For a civilised, economically developed, (largely) corruption free country like New Zealand, this is a disgrace – or a ‘moral and fiscal failure’ to quote Bill English. 

Rates of imprisonment (prisoners per 100,000 of population) compared with other democratic countries

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies (Highest to lowest) – as at February 2018.

  • New Zealand              217 (rated the second safest country in the world)
  • Australia                       167
  • England & Wales         143
  • Scotland                       135
  • Canada                         114
  • France                           101
  • Switzerland                    82
  • Germany                        77
  • Norway                           74
  • Denmark                        59
  • Sweden                          57
  • Finland                           57
  • Iceland                          38 (rated the safest country in the world – has exactly the same number of murders per head of population as New Zealand)



Iceland has a very low rate of imprisonment but is rated the most peaceful country in the world.  So locking as many people as New Zealand does clearly has little to do with community safety – which stems from a range of social and political structures in society, not just the crime rate or the number of people in prison.

In 2017, based on these structural factors, New Zealand was rated the second most peaceful country in the world and ninth in the world for social progress.  And yet, we lock up more people per capita than most civilised democracies and more people per capita than many countries where there are civil wars, drug wars, ethnic cleansing and high murder rates.

There is only one explanation for this – the New Zealand media combined with the extraordinary power of penal populism.