Should short prison sentences be abolished?

The vast majority of those given a sentence of imprisonment serve less than 12 months. There are a number of reasons for this. First, there are so many low level crimes such as burglary, car theft, minor assaults, disorderly behaviour, possession of cannabis, etc, for which prison may be prescribed but which do not warrant a significant sentence. Most of this offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Second, under New Zealand law, prisoners on short sentences – defined by the Corrections Department as two years or less – are automatically released after serving half their sentence.

What most people don’t know is that 80% of all prison sentences imposed by judges in New Zealand are for two years or less – meaning the vast majority of inmates serve less than 12 months. The problem is that very little rehabilitation is available; the Corrections Department has only recently introduced drug and alcohol treatment for those on short sentences. New Drug Treatment Units in three prisons enable about 500 short term prisoners a year to attend.

However,  there are more than 7,000 prisoners a year on short sentences – so not many will benefit. 90% of prisoners also have problems with literacy and very little assistance is available to address that either. The NZ Herald reports that Labour’s justice spokesman, Charles Chauvel, wants to eliminate jail sentences of less than six months because they are of “zero utility”.

Mr Chauvel said “abolishing short sentences, commonly used for minor offences such as drug possession and stealing cars, would free up money to help offenders with their education and addictions”.

Labour also proposes more use of police diversion for people caught possessing drugs or committing minor offences under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is the first time one of the two main parties has embraced the idea of treating the impact of substance use on offending primarily as a health issue rather than a crime.

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