Howard League calls for 50% cut in prison population

The Howard League for Penal Reform is calling for a 50% reduction in the prison population. On Monday April 2nd the Wellington Branch of the League held its inaugural meeting at Parliament hosted by Labour’s Charles Chauvel.  Other speakers at the opening included the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Grant Robertson, VUW criminologist Dr Elizabeth Stanley and Peter Williams QC.

At the meeting spokesman Roger Brooking pointed out that New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment is about 200 people per 100,000 of population. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, this gives New Zealand the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world. On a population basis, we lock up more people than Britain which has an imprisonment rate of 155, Australia at 124 and Canada at 117.

New Zealand’s rate puts us in the company of Third World countries like Mexico and Libya – where thousands have died in a civil war and drug related violence – but which have similar rates of imprisonment to New Zealand. Our rate puts us ahead of South American countries like Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia and Honduras.

Mr Brooking pointed out that Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world with an average of 20 murders a day. Mr Brooking said: “In 2011 there were 39 murders in New Zealand, which is less than one murder a week. One a week is still too many – I know – but guess what. NZ locks up more people per capita than Honduras. Their rate is only 154 per 100,000.”

‘We like locking people up’

“There is no doubt that we are a very punitive society” said Mr Brooking. “We like locking people up”.

This is very strange when you consider that from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index – out of 149 countries.In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations out of 169 countries in terms of ‘human development’ – defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’.

Mr Brooking pointed out that altogether more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year. 80% are given short sentences and are in and out of prison in less than six months. Mr Brooking said: “Our prisons have become a revolving door for those who repeatedly commit relatively minor offending – usually under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Our prisons have become a holding tank for alcoholics and drug addicts. We use them to provide warehousing for the mentally ill and those with brain damage.  The majority of these people should be in treatment, or in supported accommodation, not in prison.”

The Government is planning to build a new prison at Wiri at a cost of $900 million. Mr Brooking said: “We don’t need another prison. According to the Corrections Department, there are currently 1,600 empty beds in New Zealand prisons already. If the government is willing to spend $900 million, let’s put that money into early intervention programs, drug courts, increased treatment facilities in the community, and supported halfway houses for prisoners on release.  Let’s put more fences at the top of the cliff instead of building yet another prison at the bottom.”

4 thoughts on “Howard League calls for 50% cut in prison population

  1. Is there some way this info can be relayed through the media on a regular basis so it gets through to the New Zealand population? I often wonder why more New Zealanders accept this disgraceful system as the norm. There are many families that have had teenagers that have got into trouble due to alcohol and drug related crime. Nobody seems to speak out about the aggressive policing that deals with many situations that could be resolved without a conviction. More often than not the police exacerbate minor crime fueling a drama into a crisis.I know of several parents who have teenagers in trouble with the police due to alcohol or drug related crime, they all seem to be helpless in raising any objections because they are conditioned to believe the system is right a conviction and prison is the only course of action in dealing with crime.

    The current system locks up many people with mental health problems such as bipolar, ADHD, partial brain complex and various other mental health issues such as hormonal dysfunctional problems. Added to which the large number of adolescents that have not even reached adult brain maturity or development that commit spur of the moment hasty crime due to not thinking of the consequences. Once locked up no treatment is provided for short term offenders and sadly minimal help is given for those on reasonably long sentences either.

    Once released there is no back up or support or any ongoing treatment given to avoid re offending. For young people that have come from abused backgrounds, or have dysfunctional families there is no help or often any hope for them. For many it is impossible for them to reintegrate into society with a criminal record. The system creates a vicious circle of desperate people with no hope, no options and nowhere to turn to.

    Many people are also locked up on grossly exaggerated charges due to aggressive policing policy that is determined to press charges and convict people. The system needs to be changed from the first in line that starts the roller coaster in conviction which is the police, their attitude towards crime and offenders and their black and white policies which earn them a brownie point if they succeed in obtaining a conviction. Police prosecution is determined to throw the book at offenders and will be relentless in its pursuit of obtaining the maximum length of sentence it possibly can, their aim is to lock them up and throw away the key, without any regard for an alternative solution.

    Of course crime needs to be addressed, anyone that commits a wrong doing should be held accountable for the wrong they have done, but many can learn this without having their lives destroyed as a result of their wrong doing. What’s more if the underlying problems are addressed and people are educated and treated humanely the likelihood is that they will not re offend.

    Prison is not the answer it does not solve the problems it just creates more. Every Country that has large prison populations is proof of this fact. It is odd that the New Zealand government does not recognise this. It is simple maths to work out the squandering of public money of a failed system and ignorance to dismiss the fact that there are positive proven facts that this money should be spent on to stop this roller coaster ride.

    To allow Wirri prison to be built at such a huge expensive to the tax payer and allow a pittance in funding to cope with the real underlying issues is a disgrace and squandering of public money!


  2. Excellent comments. I invited TVNZ, TV3 and Sky, NZ Herald, DomPost and RNZ to come and cover the event at Parliament. None of them showed up… what does that tell you?


  3. Maybe the media and wider society are not interested because they have twigged that you are on the wrong path.
    You are deliberately and tiresomely giving the same old misleading impression about our imprisonment rates. We might lock up more scumbags per capita, but we lock up less PER CRIME, a much better measure. Prisons work very, very well indeed – if our priorities are the correct ones
    1. punishment
    2. keeping the crims off the streets
    3. reinforcing the message that crime doesn’t pay. The lowest priority is to ‘correct’ the prisoner and I agree that it usually doesn’t work, because by the time criminals have gone to prison, they are hardened habitual crims who have chosen a life of drugs, drink and crime, the average number of convictions for admission to prison is over 8. Since the Clayton Wetherstons of this world go in on their first, most crims must have done quite a few more and that’s only the instances where they were caught.
    Contrary to this article, they should be sent away sooner and for longer.
    Prison is also good for minimising criminals breeding even more crims in the next generation. Maybe we should lock more pisshead women criminals up so they don’t produce physiologically or emotionally defective offspring.
    I do agree though, that society has an obligation to attempt to rehabilitate short or long term prisoners, though I am pessimistic of the numbers where it will work.


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