Justice Minister, Andrew Little, says the Labour Party wants to reduce the prison population by 30% in 15 years. No political party in New Zealand has ever stayed in power for 15 years, so that’s just wishful thinking – unless, of course, Mr Little could persuade National to join a cross party agreement on this issue.
But National has always tried to portray itself as the tough on crime, law and order party. Simon Bridges, the new party leader has already made it clear he believes there are “more criminals who should be in jail, not out on the streets.”
There are three main reasons why the prison population needs to cut within six years:
1) New Zealand has a three-year electoral cycle.
The governing party (or parties) in New Zealand may only get three years in Government. Often, they get six years in power, maybe nine if they’re lucky.
The current government is a coalition of Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens. They all have different agendas, and Winston Peters has a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon. So the chances of such a coalition lasting more than six years are very slim.
Political commentator Matthew Hooten is even suggesting that “Jacinda Ardern risks being the first one-term Prime Minister since Walter Nash”. So if Labour actually wants to get the prison population down, it needs to take concerted action in the next three years.
2) The prison muster is out of control.
Since the 1980s, both National and Labour led governments have competed to be tough on crime. Both parties have passed punitive pieces of legislation which has required judges to incarcerate more and more New Zealanders. As a result, the prison muster has been rising for 50 years and recently reached a record figure of over 10,650 Kiwis behind bars.
After National passed the Bail Amendment Act in 2013, the number of prisoners on remand (in prison awaiting trial or sentencing) went through the roof – leading to headlines like this: Corrections on ‘disaster’ footing as ballooning inmate numbers drove creation of a mega prison. By March 2018, there were only 300 spare beds in the entire prison system.
3) The rising cost of the prison system is totally unsustainable.
The Corrections department estimates that prison expansion will cost $2.5 billion over the next five years. That’s on top of Corrections operating budget of $1.6 billion a year (and rising). This money would be better spent on programmes which raise living standards for all New Zealanders, and address the causes of crime.
So if Labour wants to reduce the prison muster by 30%, it has to act decisively in the next six years. This may be the only chance Andrew Little and the Labour Party get to actually make a difference.