A story in the Taranaki Daily News reports that 33 year old sickness beneficiary Steven Bunyan, has just been sent to prison for the 38th time. He was jailed for assaulting a family member (apparently his mother), contravening protection orders, breaching court release conditions and repeat drink-driving. He was jailed for 10 months and disqualified from driving for 12 months and one day.
Bunyan’s mother wrote in her victim impact statement that he reverted to his old ways when staying with her in Okato, that he was taking drugs and ‘always spaced out’. She said she had to think about the effect on the wider family. Judge Roberts noted Bunyan had nine previous convictions for assaulting women and his mother was one of three women who had protection orders against him. The judge said it was clear his problems were more than just alcohol-related and that he had anger issues.
Untreated mental health problem
No kidding!! It seems fairly obvious Bunyan has a mental health problem as well as a drinking problem. What possible benefit does the judge think this man – or society – will gain by sending him to prison again? He needs a psychiatric assessment and dual diagnosis treatment – in other words, integrated treatment for his mental health problems as well as his addictions.
There are at least three reasons Bunyan’s not getting this kind of treatment.
Short sentence syndrome
Let’s assume he first went to prison at the age of 20. If he’s been to prison 37 times before and he’s only 33, that means he’s been in prison an average of three times every year of his adult life. In other words, Bunyan is a victim of the short sentence syndrome – he gets released halfway through each sentence (that’s the law for anyone given a sentence of less than two years) and never becomes eligible to attend rehabilitation in prison. (He’s probably never appeared before the Parole Board either – that requires a sentence of more than two years). When he gets out, he starts drinking and taking drugs immediately and before you know it, he’s breached a protection order or assaulted someone, and is back before the judge.
Judicial failure to assess
That leads to the second reason he’s not getting the treatment he requires. Judges have the capacity to order psychiatric assessments and alcohol and drug assessments prior to sentencing. They can even delay sentencing until an offender has completed a treatment programme. But they rarely do. AOD assessments are ordered for only 5% of offenders – even though 80% of all offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
The ‘bad’ vs ‘sad’ approach
In Bunyan’s case the judge seems aware that he has a problem with alcohol – but doesn’t seem to be aware that Bunyan has a mental health problem. Why? Probably because Probation Officers are not trained to screen offenders for mental health problems. Probation reports are likely to describe Bunyan as a recidivist offender who repeatedly breaches court orders and for whom the only appropriate sentence is imprisonment.
Given that he’s been in the system for most of his adult life, it’s quite on the cards Bunyan attended rehab somewhere along the way. If he did, it obviously didn’t help. Probably the main factor leading to treatment failure is actually the failure of the treatment provider to assess and diagnose the patient’s co-existing mental health disorder.
Let’s say Mr Bunyan was seriously abused as a child, bullied at school and has undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and lifelong feelings of depression. Let’s assume that at the age of 14 he started smoking cannabis and found this provided some relief from his symptoms – which included nightmares and hyper-arousal. At age 16 he started binge drinking and 17 years later (now aged 33), he’s dependent on both and has a short fuse – which leads to serious problems in his relationships with women.
Is rehab going to help? Not likely. Such a person needs a psychiatric assessment and a treatment plan which addresses both the underlying mental health problems and the addiction. Did any of this abuse or trauma happen to Mr Bunyan? I don’t know. But something sure did. The kind of problems he has don’t come from nowhere. Unfortunately, the justice system hasn’t taken the time to find out. It just chucks him back in prison as if more punishment will solve the problem. The sentencing judge didn’t even bother to impose any release conditions on him.
The cost of failure
But let’s not forget that spending a year in prison costs the taxpayer $90,000. In 13 years, it appears Mr Bunyan has so far cost the taxpayer about $1 million. If this keeps up until he’s 50, it will cost nearly $3 million. What a complete and utter waste of money. A private psychiatrist might charge $2,000 to do an assessment. Eight weeks treatment would cost about $6,000. Treating Mr Bunyan’s problems from a health perspective instead of a justice perspective might actually solve the problem – and save the taxpayer a fortune. No wonder Charles Chauvel wants to abolish short prison sentences.