Why does New Zealand lock up so many people?

The historical background

There are many factors which have contributed to the rise in the prison population. It begins with New Zealand’s colonial past which fundamentally disenfranchised Maori. The historical background to New Zealand’s use of imprisonment to punish ‘deviant’ members of society is covered here.

Things began to get really out of hand in the 1980s with the introduction of neo-liberalism by Roger Douglas and the Labour Party. This increased the gap between the rich and the poor pushing more and more Kiwis, especially  Maori, onto the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Research suggests that as a general rule, economic inequality is related to penal severity: the greater the inequality in society, the higher the overall level of punishment. The way in which this works is described here.

Penal populism

The media plays a significant role in New Zealand’s approach to crime and punishment. Sometimes high-profile crimes get so much attention they lead to new ‘tough on crime’ legislation. Criminologists refer to this process as ‘moral panic’, one of the factors driving penal populism. According to the former head of the New Zealand prison service, Kim Workman, New Zealand’s

“problems with prisons started in 1987 with the infamous Law and Order general election, characterised by the get-tough messages, punitive bidding wars, and promises to the public to increase police numbers (now a triennial event)”.

In February 2018 the prison population hit 10,695 – driven by 30 years of penal populism

At that time, New Zealand had less than 3,000 people in prison. There are now over 10,000. Professor John Pratt, one of the 32 academics who signed an open letter to Government, describes this process as ‘penal populism’.  Pratt says that a big part of the problem is that the media, which is focused entirely on ratings and profit, tends to highlight stories about crime, especially violent crime. Because of all this attention, a majority of people in New Zealand mistakenly believe that crime is on the rise when, in fact, it has been on the decline for years.

Click here for more detailed information about the current crisis in New Zealand’s prison population.