The prison population is out of control – this is why

LightfootIn April 2016, the prison population reached a record high of 9436 and justice sector forecasts are for it to reach 10,000 by 2017. Trying to explain this, Department of Corrections national commissioner, Jeremy Lightfoot (right) said:

“The current increase is due to more people being held in prison on remand than was forecast; legislative changes have also meant prisoners serve more of their sentence in prison; and there has been an increase in people serving longer sentences for more serious crimes.”

BouchierCriminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier (left) disagrees. He says the lack of mental health institutions is a major cause of the rise in prisoner numbers. He says:

“One of the main reasons the prison muster is so high is that our prisons are our proxy for our mental health institutions which we no longer have. “

He also blames the three-strikes law, which is starting to take effect.

“We have got quite a number of people who are on their second strike now and the problem with that third strike is that there is no parole, so what we are going to be looking at is not only an increased prison muster, but a lot more prisoners serving long-term sentences, so that will increase the muster.”

Bouchier also believes the growing number of Australians being deported to New Zealand is contributing to the problem.

“These are people who are coming back to a completely foreign land, they’ve got no family or support… there is only so much that the probation service can do with these people. They are strangers in a strange land.”

Bouchier correctly points out that the underlying, root cause of the problem is actually penal populism:

“The (prison) population is going to continue to grow, simply because politicians see votes in getting tough on crime and they can’t be any more creative when they are addressing the crime issue in New Zealand.  Our prison rates are an embarrassment to us.”

Flying BlindNew Zealand vs Finland

In Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime, the point was made that New Zealand could learn a thing or two from Finland about rates of imprisonment. In 1950, the Finns incarcerated 187 people in prison per 100,000 of population.  New Zealand’s rate that year was 56 inmates per 100,000, less than a third of the Finnish rate.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Finns became concerned that they were out of line with their more civilised Scandinavian neighbours, which had low rates of imprisonment. This led to some dramatic changes in penal policy, as a result of which the number of people in prison began to drop. By 2001, the rate was down to only 40 people per 100,000 – an extraordinary reduction of 78% in the prison population.

During the same 50 years, the New Zealand rate began to skyrocket. In 2001, instead of being three times less, our rate of imprisonment was three times higher than Finland’s – at 150 inmates per 100,000.  Since then, more and more ‘tough on crime’ policies have been implemented and in April 2016, our prison population reached an all-time high of 202 per 100,000.  We now lock up almost four times as many people as Finland per head of population.

How did Finland do it?

According to About Time, a Corrections Department report published in 2001, three key factors contributed to Finland’s success. The first was widespread political agreement that a reduction in the prison population was necessary. The second was an understanding both in government and the public service that policies had to be based on evidence and ‘expert understanding’. The third factor was that the public in Finland actually supported measures to reduce the prison population.

Pratt2Professor John Pratt (left), a criminologist at Victoria University, put it this way:

“Key people in that society – people who actually knew something about penal policy and the consequences of imprisonment: academics, judges and senior civil servants – felt that the high prison population was shameful”.

This wry observation refers to Finland’s use of academics and justice professionals to formulate penal policy – whereas in New Zealand, penal policy has mostly been driven by knee-jerk political responses to public opinion. And public opinion on law and order issues has largely been driven by Garth McVicar, a farmer who has no qualifications in law, sociology, psychology, criminology or anything else that is remotely relevant to issues of justice or sentencing.

Why should we care? Because prisons are expensive and the cost to the taxpayer for Police, Courts, and Corrections is now estimated at over $3.7 billion a year – and rising. And because it makes no sense to keep building new prisons and locking up more and more people when the crime rate is actually declining. Unfortunately, the only hope that a New Zealand Government might be persuaded to try a new approach to penal policy is the growing financial burden these tough on crime policies impose. As the wonderfully wise Bill English said in 2011:

“Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure… It’s the fastest rising cost in government in the last decade… and my view is we shouldn’t build any more of them.”

4 thoughts on “The prison population is out of control – this is why

  1. Hi roger thanks for the post. I’m a strong believer in prison reform and appreciate the work you do in this area. I’m concerned that some people may think that 30% decrease in crime is result of being tough on crime therefore increasing prison population is actually working to reduce crime. How do you respond to people who say this?

    Matt >


    1. The factors which drive the crime rate are very different to the factors that drive the rate of imprisonment. Crime stats are driven primarily by poverty, mental health problems, alcohol & drugs and socio-economic policies – while the growing number of Kiwis in prison is driven primarily by Garth McVicar, the media’s response to violent crime and weak-kneed politicians who would rather listen to a farmer than an academic.

      The fact that Finland was able to cut the number of people in prison by 78% with no discernible increase in crime proves the point.

      See also: Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship:


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