Bill English admits his Government is a moral & fiscal failure

Prisons are a moral and fiscal failure

In 2011, Bill English claimed that prisons were “a moral and fiscal failure” and New Zealand should never build another one. Well said – and achievable – but only if Governments stop pandering to the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust and the moral panic manufactured by the media whenever a violent crime occurs.

Later that year, the Government set the Corrections Department a goal – to reduce reoffending by 25% (by 2017).  Perhaps Mr English thought that if reoffending declined, so would the prison population – or at least it wouldn’t go up.

In October this year, Mr English and the Government had to admit total defeat on both counts. Reoffending has been reduced a little (by about 8%) – but only in the first 12 months after completion of a rehabilitation programme.  After that, the reoffending rate is back to normal – which means 52% of prisoners return to prison within five years. The long-term reoffending rate has not changed in years.

In the meantime, the prison population has hit an all-time high and the government says it is going to build yet another prison. This increase in prison capacity is going to cost you and me, the taxpayer, an additional $1 billion. Imagine what the education sector could do with another billion dollars – more teachers, better pay, smaller class sizes, with staff satisfaction and retention improved. Imagine what the health sector could do with another billion dollars – reduced waiting lists, better access to mental health care and addiction treatment, better support for those on low incomes and a reduction in New Zealand’s escalating poverty statistics – all of which would likely lead to less crime.

We have to provide the capacity – yeah right!

Announcing his Government’s moral and fiscal failure, Finance Minister Bill English contradicted his 2011 statement about no more prisons saying: “This is something that has to be done. We have to provide the capacity.”

Phil Goff.jpgNo – we don’t. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this increase in our prison population.  It is entirely the result of penal policies passed by both Labour and National governments in the last few years – policies which have been getting more and more draconian. In a press release in 2002, Tougher laws driving up prison population, Justice Minister Phil Goff said tougher sentencing and parole laws enacted by the Labour government would increase the prison population by over 20% in the next seven years.

This year Judith Collins said the continuing increase was due to tougher laws passed by National. She said criminals are getting longer sentences but that the muster blowout since 2014 has mostly been driven by a 40% increase in the number of prisoners on remand. That blowout stems from changes to the Bail, Sentencing and Victim’s Rights Acts.

There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this. Prof John Pratt of Victoria University would say it is entirely due to political populism – whereby politicians follow the dubious wisdom of victims groups and the media instead of taking advice from criminologists and justice sector experts.

How Finland cut its prison population

Finland is an example of what can happen when politicians listen to academics. In 2006 in Little done to break cycle of offending, Simon Collins wrote:

“Finland has cut its imprisonment rate by two-thirds in the past 50 years, with no apparent effect on the crime rate.”

He quotes Tapio Lappi-Seppala of the Finnish Institute of Legal Policy who said Finnish judges, lawyers and politicians were ashamed of their high rate of imprisonment compared with other Nordic countries which had quite low rates.

In the 1960s, on their own initiative, judges in Finland started imposing shorter sentences on a variety of offenders. In the 1970s, politicians backed up the judges with two key law changes: imprisonment for theft and drink driving were abolished and replaced by fines and ‘conditional imprisonment’ – offenders stayed out of jail as long as they did not reoffend. Then in 1994, a new sentence of community service was introduced to replace short jail terms.

The result was a dramatic drop in the rate of imprisonment from 195 down to 66 inmates per 100,000 of the population. This proves it can be done. During this same period (1960 to now) New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment has gone up and up. In 2016, it topped 200 people per 100,000 – four times higher than Finland’s. This puts us on a par with Mexico (204) and way above Australia (152), the United Kingdom (146), China (118) and Canada (114). Altogether New Zealand locks up more people per head of population than 150 other countries.

Liam Martin
Dr Liam Martin: “Its time to start making different choices.”

Attempts have even been made in New Zealand to turn this around. In Lessons from youth justice for our prison policy, VUW criminology lecturer Dr Liam Martin notes:

“It’s time to start making different choices. Our history of youth justice is a reminder we have changed paths before: in less than a decade between 1988 and 1996, we cut the number of children in state institutions from 2000 to fewer than 100.”

If we can reduce the number of children in state institutions (and the number of psychiatric patients in state care), surely we reduce the number of adults in our prison system. Spending $1 billion to increase prison capacity is an irresponsible and appalling waste of taxpayers’ money. It would be much better spent in the education and health sectors – where it would actually contribute to reduced offending.

6 thoughts on “Bill English admits his Government is a moral & fiscal failure

  1. A very interesting article and I am sure that most of it is true. A factor and an important factor missing is that 70% of our prison population has been under CYF “care”. In my experience CYF social workers often make dreadful errors in dealing with “difficult” families. A more truly helpful approach to families who have problems would save the country from inter generational production of people destined to be the prisoners of next year or next 10 years .


  2. An additional $1bn of spending on improving education underachievement and addressing mental health issues could have a significant effect on both the prevention of first-time crime and recidivism.

    Also, more investment into effective rehab programs, including more widespread availability of yoga in prisons would clearly make a big difference [Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population, Oxford Press:

    If only that were possible.

    But do you really need to fire arrows at a vocal minority who have suffered tremendous trauma, primarily as a result of violent crime? Victims don’t tend to go to the media or SST unless they feel that something is wrong, be it the nature of the crime they were affected by (which might imply systemic societal issues), or the “failure” of the justice system. Nobody enjoys grieving in the public spotlight. Those who make it into national media may have experienced the sudden (and usually unwarranted) loss of a beloved family member, or extreme physical and psychological trauma that can often last a lifetime, and are confronted with the prospects (and often reality) of egregious leniency upon the offender.

    It might make sense for the justice system to experiment with leniency Finnish-style with regards to first-time drunk driving and minor theft, but it simply doesn’t make sense for that leniency to extend towards the most serious crimes, like homicide and unlawful assault, yet that is exactly what has happened. It doesn’t make sense for the deterrence of serious crimes to be reduced to virtually zero through excessively lenient sentencing. Nor does it make sense for innocent victims not to experience justice, or not be be heard when they don’t. Victims and survivors of serious crimes recover faster when they know that a reasonable amount of “punishment” is doled out for the offense they’ve suffered [Family Survivors of Homicide Victims: Theoretical Perspectives and an Exploratory Study:

    But “punishment” doesn’t need to extend beyond the prospect of a simple lack of freedom; offenders can be treated not only humanely but compassionately so as to assure their likelihood of not reoffending. We can clearly learn some things from the approach of a number of northern European countries who are successful in reducing recidivism, particularly at the “low harm” end of the offending spectrum. But that will inevitably cost; prisoners not only need space and comfortable living conditions, they need effective rehabilitation.

    This is a complex issue with multiple moving parts, including both the rights of the offender, and the rights of the victim(s), the need for deterrence of crime and the need for decreasing recidivism and first time offense.

    Hopefully we can figure it out without having to throw the baby out with the bath water.


    1. @Cherie. You have made some very good points. And I agree that victims need help. But I would argue that spending another billion dollars on a new prison is throwing out the baby with the bath water. We don’t need another prison. We have enough already. What we need is better education, better health services, and more support for at risk families and offenders in the community.

      And I am not throwing arrows at a vocal minority. I am throwing them at the government for pandering to that minority, and ignoring the needs of the rest of society.


  3. @Roger. This is a valuable discussion. Perhaps it might even lead to some viable solutions in what would otherwise seem like a irreconcilable impasse.

    People only get imprisoned in New Zealand when they offend very seriously or have become a recidivist offender unwilling or unable to change. Given the extent of the population growth in recent years I’m not surprised there might be some need for expansion of capacity for the incarcerated. Is that not logical? Crime doesn’t simply magically disappear as a population expands and sentences are reduced, and certainly not without the relevant and supportive education and mental health programmes outside of prisons that are required for such “miracles.”

    The real tragedy is why do we have to choose? (Between better care and rehab for psychologically damaged and potentially dangerous criminals, and better education and mental health support for communities outside of prisons?). Who says one is more important than the other? Why can’t we have both? It’s a “simple” matter of funding isn’t it? But does anyone want to take on higher taxes to accommodate such programmes? My guess is it would only be a smidgeon of golden-hearted Kiwis who would dig into their own pockets to fund these things.

    More realistically the government needs to start thinking outside the box in terms of fundraising for our country’s entirety of needs, which can’t necessarily be parsed out. Perhaps the possibilities exist of looking more seriously at (either or both); a tourist tax and an increased “entry” tax on immigrants who buy their way into the country.

    New Zealand is undoubtedly amongst the top three “must visit” places in the world (on a par with Iceland). Most tourists who visit NZ have plenty of disposable income and would likely not flinch at an entry tax in the vicinity of $50. Costa Rica does it. And immigrants who buy their way into the country also tend to have large disposable incomes. Why shouldn’t their “price” to enter such a coveted place-on-the-planet-to-reside include some kind of contribution to the development of our education, health and corrections systems, as well as towards helping overcome our environmental challenges? Plenty of sought-after islands in the Caribbean do it.


  4. @Cherie. I am going to disagree with you on a couple of points.

    1) I am not sure where you got the idea that prison sentences have been reduced. In fact they have been getting longer. The increase in the number of long-term prisoners is one of the factors contributing to the growth in prison population. See Fig 3.7 on this link.

    2) Also, there is no relationship between the level of crime in society and the level of imprisonment. Over the last 20 years, crime statistics have been dropping while the number people in prison has gone up. The rate of imprisonment is driven by politicians responding to the media – not by the level of crime.

    3) Yes there are ways that the government could take in more tax. But we still don’t need another prison. Prisons have largely become warehouses for the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the unemployed and disenfrachised Maori. They are also universities for more crime.

    As Bill English described them, prisons are a ‘moral and fiscal failure’. What he meant by that is that they are very expensive to build and operate, the money could be better spent elsewhere, and so New Zealand should find alternative solutions for dealing with those on the margins of society


  5. We definitely do not need more prisons. Corrections staff have enough trouble managing what they have now and you would know that from your regular visits. 90% of prisoners spend their waking hours sitting around doing sfa waiting for next meal. Making Corrections responsible for reducing reoffending simply showed how out of touch with reality politicians really are. It is politicians and judges pandering to the failed farmer who send people to prison not Corrections staff who simply lack the resources to even think about helping inmates not reoffend post-release. Just look at how many current inmates are parole recalls to see how pathetic reintegration of prisoners released is managed. At least 50% of inmates would better serve the community and reimburse their victims through intelligently managed community based sentences where they worked to (a) improve their lifestyle; and (b) make reparations. It costs $300pw to keep someone on the dole and $300 per day to keep the same person in prison but the average middle class voter is far more likely to castigate dole bludgers for wasting taxpayers’ funds and politicians continue to feed that appetite for misinformation. Maori complain about over-representation in prison so the simple solution would be to make each tribe responsible for housing their own in Marae based jails with inmates working to pay for their keep and make restitution to victims. Make those greedy fat cat kaumatua in each tribe use Waitangi settlement money to benefit their youth to keep them away from drugs and a life of crime. Politicians will never tell the truth on any subject and will certainly never tell the truth about the obvious shortcomings of the Criminal Injustice System and Penal System. Little and his mate Jacinda have been vocal in opposition but what chance they would do anything to change the status quo if given the treasury benches?


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