It’s not the Justice system that’s broken – it’s the political system

Chester
Chester Borrows, head of the Justice Advisory Panel

Writing in Newsroom last week, Laura Walters discusses the work being done by the Justice Advisory Panel appointed by Andrew Little. She says the Panel has found that:

“there is widespread acceptance that New Zealand has a broken justice system”.

She says the head of the advisory panel, Chester Burrows, claims there needs to be a change of focus from punishment to healing and quotes him as saying:

“the type of changes being promised would take at least a generation to be delivered.”

Apparently, Justice Minister, Andrew Little, and National Party justice spokesman Mark Mitchell agreed with Borrows that transformative change like this would take time.

Key statistics

The notion that the justice system is broken is based on three key statistics. The first is that prison population recently hit an all-time high of 10,800 – although it may have dropped a bit since then. The second is that 50% of inmates are Maori even though they make up only 15% of the general population. The third is that rehabilitation programmes are ineffective with the result that 60% of prison inmates re-offend within two years of being released.

NZ Prison rate
Graph showing the growth of the NZ prison population 1900 to 2016

Rather than ‘broken’, the number of Kiwis in prison suggests the system is far too efficient. It has been locking up Kiwis in record numbers, currently 220 inmates per 100,000 of the general population. The reality is that New Zealand incarcerates more people than corrupt, undemocratic countries such as Honduras – which has the highest murder rate in the world but a prison rate of only 200. We also lock up more than other western democracies like Australia where the rate of imprisonment is 167 per 100,000; England & Wales (143); Canada (114); Finland (57); and Iceland (38) –  which is rated the safest country in the world and has exactly the same number of murders per head of population as New Zealand.

Solving the primary problem

So, if we solved the first problem – that there are too many Kiwis in prison – that would largely solve the other two. For instance, if there were only 5,000 people in prison instead of 10,000, only 2,500 would be Maori instead of 5,000. Similarly, even if 60% continued to reoffend, that would be 3,000 reoffenders instead of 6,000. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle institutional racism in the justice system or try to reduce re-offending, but the greatest gains will be achieved by quick-fix measures which reduce the prison population.

Once upon a time, Andrew Little would have agreed. He said he wanted to reduce the muster by 30% within 15 years. He seems to have given up on that goal. Instead of reducing the prison muster, now he wants to fix the entire justice system and claims it will take a generation – which is about 30 years.

That’s a shame – because the prison population could be easily be reduced by 30% within three years. All the government has to do is repeal the Bail Amendment Act of 2013 which led to an extra 1,500 people sent to prison on remand (i.e. not yet convicted); and allow 1,500 low risk prisoners to be released automatically half way through their sentence – instead of making them go before the Parole Board which, according to Mike Williams, has lost the plot.

The need for public support

Unfortunately, after failing to repeal the three strikes law, Andrew Little seems to have given up on amending any legislation at all. Instead, it seems he wants to change the punitive culture that Garth McVicar, the media and the two major political parties have generated in the last 20 years by talking ‘tough on crime’ – a process known as penal populism.   Instead of using legislation, it seems Mr Little now wants public support to change the public narrative – but admits he’ll have to wait 30 years to get it. This text he sent me a few days ago demonstrates his shift of focus.

Twitter - Andrew Little

Andrew Little needs to get on with it

The problem is, Little doesn’t have 30 years. He doesn’t even have 15. This coalition government has two years to run.  Simon Bridges is not doing well as leader of the Nats and so Labour may get another three years. So if Little is serious about cutting the prison muster, or reforming the justice system, he needs to get on with it.

And he’s dead wrong when he says it’s not about the legislation. The current crisis in the prison muster is a direct result of a raft of tough on crime bills passed by both National and Labour in the last 20 years;  both parties have been all too willing to jump on Garth McVicar’s bandwagon to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’.

Andrew Little seems to have realised the futility of this approach; he recently referred to McVicar as ‘loopy’. But there is no doubt that the current crisis in our prison system is the direct result of 20 years of fear-mongering and scare tactics about keeping the community safe.  Now Mr Little wants to reverse course. But he can’t repeal any of these measures because Labour doesn’t even have the support of coalition partner, NZ First, let alone the New Zealand public. I rest my case. It’s not the justice system that’s broken. It’s the political system.

Kelvin Davis has a cunning plan

Baldrick
Baldrick: “I have a cunning plan!”

When Blackadder and Baldrick were in a difficult situation, Baldrick would come up with a turn of phrase which became a standing joke: “I have a cunning plan” he would say.

The Labour government is also in a tricky situation with regard to justice reform. Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis want to reduce the prison population by 30%. The fly in the ointment is NZ First which shot down Little’s recent proposal to repeal the three strikes law.

Given NZ First’s uncompromising stance on law and order, Labour is unlikely to pass any legislative proposals related to crime and punishment in this parliamentary term. But just as Baldrick used to do, Kelvin Davis and Corrections have come up with a cunning plan.

Instead of repealing the three strikes law or the Bail Amendment Act, Davis has persuaded management in the Department to alleviate obstacles in the way offenders are processed in prison. Corrections deputy national commissioner, Leigh Marsh (below), was put in charge of the project and has come up with two main strategies.

Leigh Marsh
Leigh Marsh, deputy national commissioner – the man with a plan.

Bail Support Service

One is to assist the growing number of defendants on remand apply for bail in the community instead of spending months in prison waiting for their case to come up.

Since the Bail Amendment Act was passed in 2013 making it more difficult for defendants to get bail, offenders are now far more likely to be remanded in prison. However, they may be eligible to apply for electronically monitored bail (known as ebail); the defendant has to come up with a suitable address, and whoever lives there (usually family), has to give their permission.

To apply, the offender has to write to the people in the house and ask if he can stay there on ebail. He may not know the exact address which is another obstacle. Even if he does, whoever he writes to might not bother to reply. If they say ‘no’, then the prisoner has to come up with someone else to write to.  Of course, all this assumes the prisoner can read and write – when the reality is that 70% of those in prison struggle with basic literacy.  In other words, this is a slow frustrating procedure and most of those on remand just give up and wait till their day in court.

According to Corrections deputy national commissioner, Leigh Marsh, Corrections has put a rocket under remand by creating a Bail Support Service and a bail phone App.  Bail Officers visit the prisoner the day after he is remanded in prison to assist with the paperwork, and contact the appropriate support people. They also liase with defence counsel and try to get the defendant’s bail application before a judge within a week. This has cut dramatically the amount of time that prisoners spend on remand. Once offenders get out, they get their cell phone back and the App helps them stay on track with their bail conditions.

Parole ready

Sir Ron Young.jpg
Sir Ron Young – parole board chairman

Corrections’ other new strategy is to help sentenced prisoners become ‘parole ready’. The background to this is that the Parole Board will not generally release any prisoner until he, or she, has completed a criminogenic rehabilitation programme. Often the Board insists that prisoners must do two rehab programmes before they are considered ready for release.

The problem was that until Kelvin Davis got involved, Corrections made little effort to put prisoners into programmes until they were near the end of their sentence.  That means most prisoners would end up serving almost their entire sentence, even though they became eligible for parole after completing one third.

By failing to put prisoners into programs early on in their sentence, Corrections was actively preventing them from being paroled – including low to medium risk prisoners who make up the bulk of the prison population.

Leigh Marsh says that Corrections is now making more of an effort to place prisoners into programs before their first parole hearing – something they have never done before.  As a result, in the last 12 months approximately 5% more prisoners have been released on parole.

Impact

These changes have made a significant difference.  According to Newsroom:

ImpactThe population peaked in March at 10,820 and on 3 October had dropped to 10,035 – a 7.3% fall.

Two days later Stuff reported:

“The prison population has dipped below 10,000 for the first time in more than two years”.

Given that prison numbers have been rising steadily for over 50 years, it is too early to tell whether this is just a temporary blip or part of a new trend. One thing is clear. This new approach involves a great deal more respect and humanity for offenders and a much greater commitment to due process.  Instead of chucking offenders into prison to take their chances with an unresponsive system riddled with insurmountable obstacles, now Corrections is actively trying to help offenders get out and stay out.

I have to say – that’s a novel idea – one that has never been tried before in New Zealand.

Cost savings

But wait, there’s more. It costs $110,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Since there are already 800 less prisoners, that’s a potential saving of $88 million in one year. If these initiatives had been introduced 20 years ago, the savings would have been $1.7 billion. If these initiatives continue to work and eventually cut the prison population by Labour’s goal of 3,000, that would save $330 million a year. Over the next 20 years, we would save $6.6 billion.

Even Blackadder would agree – this is a very cunning plan. It’s called common sense.

97% of Kiwis do NOT support the three strikes law

Image result for david farrar
David Farrar conducted dodgy research on behalf of Garth McVicar

The New Zealand Herald recently published an article claiming that “Three strikes law supported by 68% of Kiwis”.

The article was based on a truly dodgy piece of research commissioned by Garth McVicar and carried out by Kiwiblogger, David Farrar. Even Donald Trump would have called it ‘fake news’.

To get this result, those participating in the survey were asked this question:

“Since 2010, New Zealand has had a ‘Three Strikes’ sentencing law for serious violent and sexual offenders who continue to commit offences. This law removes parole eligibility for repeat offenders and imposes the maximum prison term available for the offence committed, for those who offend a third or subsequent time. Do you approve or disapprove of this law?”

David Farrar’s research firm rang up 965 people and 645 of them (68%) said they approved. When contacted about these results David Farrar said his team actually rang about 2000 people, but only 965 agreed to participate. So actually that’s 645 out of 2000 people who said they approved of the law. That brings the approval rate down to 32%.

Even then, the result is still misleading. In surveys like this, when people are given specific details about the offender and the crime and understand the context, they tend to be far more lenient towards the offender than when asked vague questions like the one above.

To illustrate: there are only two or three offenders on their third strike. One of them is Daniel Fitzgerald who has a history of mental illness. In December 2016, under the influence of alcohol, he approached a woman he did not know in central Wellington. He tried to kiss her on the lips, but in the struggle she managed to turn her head away and he kissed her cheek instead.

Image result for david garrett nz
David Garrett confused the rules of US baseball with NZ sentencing law

Because this was his third strike, he was sentenced to the maximum sentence of seven years’ in prison for indecent assault. The judge in the case said the offending was so minor that without the three strikes law, Fitzgerald would not have been sent to prison at all.

Raven Casey Campbell is another on his third strike. He was already in prison when he was convicted of indecent assault for grabbing a female prison officer’s bottom. On top of the sentence he was already serving, he was also sentenced to an additional seven years. Judge Toogood said:

“It may seem very surprising that this consequence could be required by law for an offence of this kind, but that is the law and I have no option but to enforce it.”

Context-rich research questions

In order to conduct more meaningful research on the extent to which people approve of the three strikes law, survey questions need to be formulated like this:

“A 45-year-old man with a history of mental illness kissed a woman he had never met on the cheek when he had been drinking. If you were the judge, would you sentence him to a community-based program with a focus on addressing his mental health and addiction issues, or would you sentence him to prison.”

The evidence suggests that when people participating in surveys are given background details about the case, they tend to be far more lenient than when asked general questions that don’t provide any context.

In a brief survey conducted by Survey Monkey, even when someone has been killed in a drink-driving accident, 97% of respondents did not want the offender to go to prison when told the background circumstances. CHECK OUT THE SURVEY HERE.

 

Garth McVicar commits a $30,000 finable offence every day

In March 2018, Garth McVicar congratulated the police on his Facebook page for shooting a 29-year-old man near Pohuehue. “One less to clog the prisons!” he wrote.

is this charitable

McVicar was criticised by all and sundry including the police who called his comments repugnant. Action Station urged readers to sign a petition suggesting ‘Sensible Sentencing Trust should not have charitable status’.

The reality is that the SST does not have charitable status. It was deregistered in 2010 when the Charities Commission decided it was a lobby group and that its main aims were political rather than charitable.  The point was clarified in a press release issued by Charities Services in 2015:

The Sensible Sentencing Trust was created to advocate for changes in the law about sentencing and criminal (penal) policy. It is not a registered charity.

According to Sir Peter Gluckman, Garth McVicar uses dogma, rather than data to make his case in the media.  It seems he also uses ‘alternative facts’ (to quote Kellyanne Conway).  On the SST website, McVicar still claims the SST is a ‘registered charitable trust’ (see screengrab below).

SST screen

This is illegal under the Charities Act. Section 37 of the Act states that unless registered under the Act, “a person may not use the words ‘registered charitable entity’ to describe their organisation”. Section 38 says that anyone who does so commits an offence and is liable to be fined up to $30,000. That means McVicar is potentially in breach of section 37 of the Charities Act and could be fined up to $30,000.SGRITY SET UP

In order to get around the deregistration, in 2015 McVicar set up a second trust called the Sensible Sentencing Group Trust. The website claims:

“Sensible Sentencing encompasses two very distinct trusts and purposes” – yeah right!

McVicar claims that the role of the SST is political advocacy (which is not a charitable purpose) and the role of the SSGT is solely to support victims – which is considered charitable. The screengrab claims both of them are ‘registered charitable trusts’.

However, Garth McVicar is the spokesperson for both organisations: the roles and functions of the two trusts are enmeshed on one website; funds for the SSGT are solicited on the SST site; the few staff who offer victim assistance on behalf of the SSGT are all members of the SST; and the SSGT Trust document (available on line) in effect describes political advocacy in its mission statement. It says:

“We serve to educate the public as to the plight of these victims… and to help them ensure their interests are properly understood by any relevant authority.”

‘Educating the public’ (through McVicar’s frequent media statements) and ‘ensuring that victims’ interests are understood by the relevant authorities’ is McVicar’s modus operandi. He is constantly calling on the Government of the day to lock up more people. According to Charities Services, as a registered charity, the SSGT is not allowed to do this.

In other words, the SSGT is just a front enabling the organisation to continue offering donee status with the IRD while McVicar continues with his media campaign and political agenda under the guise of the SST.  Political advocacy is not a charitable purpose. So in the words of the Charities Service, both the SST and SSGT appear to be “sham charities set up for an illegal or improper purpose”.

The SSGT should also be deregistered. Now that would be really sensible.

Petition to Govt to cancel plans for 3,000 bed mega prison at Waikeria

Garth McVicar took advantage of the Marceau family’s grief to advocate for tougher bail laws

Since the Bail Amendment Act was passed in 2013, the prison population has jumped by over 1500. This has created a crisis in capacity – there are only 300 beds left in the entire prison system. The National Government and Bill a new 3,000 bed prison at Waikeria to address the problem – at a cost of $1 billion.

I have created a website, It’s Time to Cut Prison Population which advocates against the new prison being built.
It contains information describing the historical background to the growth in New Zealand’s prison population.
It contains some simple quick fix solutions to reduce the prison population by 30% within six years – and explains why it needs to be done in six years – and not 15 as proposed by the Labour government.
It also has an online petition which allows all New Zealanders to email the government to take immediate steps to lower the prison population and cancel plans for the proposed prison.

How to cut the prison population by 50% – long term solutions

Andrew little
Andrew Little wants to roll out “therapeutic courts” to treat offenders with addictions

Cutting the prison population by 30% is easy: repeal the Bail Amendment Act and allow more short-term prisoners to be released after serving half their sentence. These suggestions are discussed in How to cut the prison population by 50% – quick fix solutions.

But to get to 50%, we also need to stop putting so many people in prison in the first place. And we need to reduce the re-offending rate.

Unlike the quick fixes, some long-term solutions will require financial investment. Others, such as raising the price of alcohol will actually increase government revenues.

Increase the price of alcohol and decriminalise cannabis

Despite the endless scaremongering about methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids, alcohol is by far the biggest drug problem in the country.  In Alcohol in our Lives, the Law Commission said 80% of all offending is alcohol and drug related.  The Commission concluded that increasing the price of alcohol 10% (by raising the taxation component) was the single most effective intervention to reduce alcohol related harm and would raise $350 million in revenue.

It also recommended an increase in the legal age of purchase to 20, restricting the sale of alcohol in supermarkets (which now account for 70% of all alcohol sold in New Zealand), and an increase in funding for addiction and mental health treatment. The National Government ignored all these recommendations.

Decriminalising cannabis would also help keep drug users out of prison. If the Government wanted to be really bold, it could decriminalise possession of all drugs as Portugal has done.  In July this year, the New Zealand Drug Foundation released a similar policy, Whakawatea Te Huarahi. The Foundation describes this as:

“a model for drug law reform which aims to replace conviction with treatment and prohibition with regulation… under this model, all drugs would be decriminalised. Cannabis would be strictly regulated and government spending on education and treatment increased.”

This would make a big difference. In 2015, offenders with drug offences accounted for 13% of all sentenced prisoners.  So apart from a few big time drug dealers who would remain in prison, if personal possession was decriminalised, that’s another 800 people or so that could be treated in the community instead of in prison.

Increase the number of drug courts

Decriminalisation needs to be aligned with a significant increase in funding for ‘drug courts’.  Here’s how they work. When someone appears in court with alcohol or drug related offending, the judge gives him a choice. Instead of sending him to prison for the umpteenth time, if the offender agrees to be dealt with in the drug court and go to treatment, he may avoid going to prison.

The offender comes back to court every two weeks so the judge can monitor his progress. The whole process usually takes about 18 months. If the offender successfully completes everything he’s told to do, he avoids a prison sentence. Those who ‘graduate’ say this process is much tougher than going to prison.

This is a highly effective intervention. But right now, there are only two drug courts in the whole country, and they ‘treat’ only 100 offenders a year. Over the next five years, New Zealand needs to increase the number of Drug Courts to at least ten.  Justice Minister, Andrew Little, has already agreed to ‘roll them out’.  This will require a significant increase in funding for AOD treatment services in the community, but it would keep at least 500 offenders a year out of prison. If drug courts were rolled out nationwide, even more could be managed in the community.

Increase funding for reintegration services

Sending less people to prison is paramount. Reducing the risk of reoffending is equally important. Currently, within twelve months, 28% of ex-prisoners are back inside.  After two years,  41% are back in prison.  These figures have changed little in the last 20 years, despite a massive increase in the availability of alcohol and drug treatment in prison; and despite a concerted effort by Corrections in the last few years to reduce reoffending by 25%.

The problem is Corrections spends approximately $150 million a year on rehabilitation programmes in prison – on programmes that don’t work. There’s a reason they don’t work. The reality is that 15,000 people (most on short sentences) are released from prison every year. Many are alienated from family and have nowhere to live. Very few have jobs to go to. Hundreds have no ID, no bank account and struggle to register for the dole. In Beyond the Prison Gate, the Salvation Army recommended…

“that the Department of Corrections ensures all ex-prisoners are provided with six months of accommodation… and create industry schemes that will employ prisoners for … 12 months post release if they have no other employment.”

Here’s the crux of the problem. While the Department spends $150 million on rehabilitation in prison every year, in 2017 only $3 million was budgeted for supported accommodation – for an estimated 640 ex-prisoners. Until $150 million is also spent on half-way houses and reintegration services, the funding spent on rehabilitation in prison is money down the toilet.

There are many other options available. But until we have a Government with the courage to ignore the moral panic perpetuated by the Senseless Sentencing Trust over the last 20 years, our prison muster will continue to multiply; and millions of taxpayer dollars will be squandered on the dubious delusion that locking citizens away creates a safer society.

How to cut the prison population by 50% in five years – quick fix solutions

Andrew little
Andrew Little wants to reduce the prison population by 30%

In September 2017, New Zealand’s prison population hit an all-time high of 10,470, of whom 2,983 or 28% were on remand.  The background to this boom is covered in Explaining NZ’s record high prison population.

Whatever the causes, the situation is clearly out of control. The operating cost of our prison system is about $100,000 per prisoner or $1.5 billion a year.  The National Government was planning a new prison at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. According to the new Justice Minister, Andrew Little, unless we start doing things differently, New Zealand will need to build a new prison every two or three years.

At the 2017 election, Gareth Morgan proposed reducing the prison muster by 40% over ten years. The Labour coalition wants to reduce it by 30% over 15 years. However, both Kelvin Davis, the new Corrections Minister and Andrew Little have been very vague about how they intend to achieve this. Both also seemed to think it was complicated and would take a long time.

Reducing the prison population is not difficult. The simplest approach is to repeal most of the ‘tough on crime’ legislation that has been passed in the last 25 years.  There are also some easy administrative fixes which will reduce the prison population by up to 3,000 very quickly. This article describes some of the quick fix solutions. (Also see Roger Brooking interviewed by Hilary Barry on Breakfast on this subject.)

Reduce the number of prisoners on remand

Of all the punitive legislation passed since 1980, the Bail Amendment Act in 2013 produced the biggest bump in prison numbers. This disastrous piece of legislation was introduced after the murder of Christie Marceau by 18-year-old Akshay Chand – while on bail.  However, this was not a failure of the existing bail laws.  It was the result of an inadequate risk assessment by the mental health services dealing with Chand, who was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and found unfit to stand trial. He was released after a forensic health nurse advised Judge McNaughton that Chand had been taking anti-depressant medication for two weeks and could be “safely and successfully” treated in the community.

In response to the media outrage at the murder led by Garth McVicar, National passed the Bail Amendment Act making it much tougher for defendants to be granted bail. Projections by the Ministry of Justice claimed the new Bill would increase the number of prisoners on remand by less than 60.  But three years later, there are 1,500 new prisoners on remand. None of them have yet been convicted of a crime.  They’re being held in prison because a mental health nurse, not a judge, got it wrong and because National gave in to the moral outrage perpetrated by McVicar.  As a result, the Corrections Department says we need a new prison.  We don’t. We just need to repeal the Bail Amendment Act.

Release more short-term, low risk prisoners

The other quick fix is to let out more short-term prisoners early. The Parole Act defines a short-term prison sentence as one of two years or less.  Short-term prisoners don’t go before the parole board – they’re automatically released after serving half their sentence. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 short-term inmates on a given day (although thousands more than this cycle through the prison within a 12 month period). The Board would be totally overwhelmed if it had to see all these inmates, many of whom are in prison for quite minor offences. So automatic release at the half-way mark is an administrative convenience.

Short term prisoners
Graph showing the number of short term prisons has remained constant while the number of long term prisoners continues to rise – 1980 to 2009

A long-term sentence is anything over two years (from two years up to life).  Since 1985 ‘tough on crime’ legislation has significantly increased the number of long term prisoners (see chart above); the number of people given ‘long term’ sentences between two and three years went up 475%. In 2015, there were 765 inmates in this group, out of a total of nearly 5,000 long term prisoners.

These prisoners can only be released before the end of their sentence if the Parole Board decides they no longer pose an ‘undue risk’ to the community. Most attend their first parole hearing after completing one third of their sentence. But that doesn’t mean they get out. In the last few years, the Parole Board has become increasingly risk averse and now less than 5% of inmates are released at their first hearing – after which they serve the rest of their sentence in the community under the supervision of a probation officer.  Most long-term prisoners now serve approximately 75% of their sentence. The remainder serve their entire sentence.

So if the definition of ‘short-term’ was changed from two years to three years. That would allow an additional 765 inmates to be released automatically after serving half their sentence.  Prisoners serving four or five years could be automatically released after serving two thirds.  In 2015, there were 1,645 inmates serving between two and five years. Add this to the 1,500 no longer being held on remand and within five years, the population would be down about 3,000 – which is 30% within five years.

Prisoners also need accommodation and jobs when they get out. That requires long-term solutions, which would reduce the prison population by a further 20%. These solutions are addressed in How to cut the prison population by 50% – long term solutions