Do prisons deter crime?

The current Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins believes prisons deter criminal offending. In a speech at the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility in October 2009, she said: “Certainly, the belief that they will be caught and punished is the greatest deterrent for criminals”.

Two years later, she continues to hold on to this erroneous perspective. When Ms Collins opened the new prison in Mt Eden in March 2011, she dismissed concerns about the new prison being so visible from the street, claiming that it acted as a deterrent to potential offenders.

Canadian research on deterrence
Ms Collins is remarkably uninformed. There is no research indicating that imprisonment deters criminal behaviour. On the contrary – the available research all points in the other direction. A Canadian study from 2001 says:

“A recent research paper from the office of the Solicitor General of Canada brings together the results of 50 studies of the deterrent effect of imprisonment involving over 300,000 offenders… Longer sentences were not associated with reduced recidivism. In fact the opposite was found. Longer sentences were associated with a 3% increase in recidivism. This finding suggests some support for the theory that prison may serve as a ‘school for crime’ for some offenders… No evidence for a crime deterrent function was found”.

New Zealand research
New Zealand’s recidivism statistics confirm the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent. Approximately 43% of all prisoners and 65% of those under 20, re-offend within a year of their release. Within five years, over half will return to prison – often more than once. For those under the age of 20, more than 70% are back inside within five years. In 2009, Arul Nadesu, principal strategic adviser for the Corrections Department, wrote:

“Analysis confirms simply that, the more time in the past someone has been in prison, the more likely they are to return to prison following any given release.” 

After three years on the job, it seems that Ms Collins has not read any research on the role of prisons in society – unlike Finance Minister, Bill English, who at least put some thought into this, and declared prisons to be a ‘fiscal and moral failure’. But even Mr English wasn’t prepared to put his money where his mouth is. The same day that he made this announcement, Corrections Department officials were in the process of making a submission to the EPA to build another 1,000 bed prison in Wiri.

Hypocrisy and incompetence
Mr English’s stance is hypocritical – he says prisons are a fiscal failure but is willing to spend an estimated $424 million building another one.  But Ms Collins’ superficial knowledge of the subject is bewildering – and surely borders on incompetence. Given her inability to acquire even a rudimentary understanding of the role of prisons, why John Key would keep her on as Minister is hard to fathom. Or is it? He and his colleagues are all part of the ‘lock ’em up brigade’ and the continuing campaign of misinformation perpetrated by the Minister.

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