Sensible sentencing leads to reduction in prison population

There are two groups of people in prison – those who have been sentenced and those on remand waiting to be sentenced.  Over the last ten years, the number of sentenced prisoners increased by 34% but there has been a massive increase – of 116% – in the number of offenders being sent to prison on remand.

The use of remand is so out of control that over 14,000 people are now remanded each year – which puts enormous pressure on the need for prison beds. In response, the Corrections Department has built  a new prison for those on remand in Mt Eden and is planning to build another prison at Wiri.

But for the first time ever, this year’s justice sector forecasts predict a 6.2% decrease in the prison population over the next 10 years. The sentenced population is forecast to fall by 6% and the remand population by 7%. But the fall may even be greater than this – one scenario in the forecast suggests the remand population could fall by as much as 23%.

Cause of the decline

Those claiming that the reduction in prison population is due to better policing or reduced crime have not understood (and have misinterpreted) the data upon which prison projections are made. The turnaround in remand figures actually began in 2007 after the Sentencing Amendment Act came into effect. The Act introduced two new non-custodial sentences – community detention and intensive supervision. It also introduced home detention as an immediate, community-based sentence. Previously, offenders given home detention had to go to prison first – and then apply for home detention from there.

As a result of these changes, from 2008 onwards the number of offenders given home detention and community based sentences has gone up dramatically – by between 40% and 50%. It has taken three years for this to impact on the prison projections and for the trend to become apparent.

Conclusion – sensible sentencing

In other words, the projected drop in the prison population has very little to do with reductions in the crime rate, better policing or socio-economic factors. It’s almost entirely due to the  legislation passed in 2007 which gave judges more community-based sentencing options. Because of the decline, Prime Minister John Key said we may not need to build the new prison – estimated to cost $424 million.  When New Zealand is facing the biggest deficit in its history, and every prisoner costs the taxpayer over $90,000 a year, this puts new meaning into the term ‘sensible sentencing’.

A reduction in the prison population would be a positive step. But the 14,000 inmates on remand are still not allowed to attend any rehabilitation programmes in prison. And there is still very little support in the community for inmates coming out of prison. Most relapse to alcohol and drug use and eventually re-offend. Fundamentally, the system is still Flying Blind.

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