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.”
No – 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.
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.