In September 2017, New Zealand’s prison population hit an all-time high of 10,470, of whom 2,983 or 28% were on remand. The background to this boom is covered in Explaining NZ’s record high prison population.
Whatever the causes, the situation is clearly out of control. The operating cost of our prison system is about $100,000 per prisoner or $1.5 billion a year. The National Government was planning a new prison at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. According to the new Justice Minister, Andrew Little, unless we start doing things differently, New Zealand will need to build a new prison every two or three years.
At the 2017 election, Gareth Morgan proposed reducing the prison muster by 40% over ten years. The Labour coalition wants to reduce it by 30% over 15 years. However, both Kelvin Davis, the new Corrections Minister and Andrew Little have been very vague about how they intend to achieve this. Both also seemed to think it was complicated and would take a long time.
Reducing the prison population is not difficult. The simplest approach is to repeal most of the ‘tough on crime’ legislation that has been passed in the last 25 years. There are also some easy administrative fixes which will reduce the prison population by up to 3,000 very quickly. This article describes some of the quick fix solutions. (Also see Roger Brooking interviewed by Hilary Barry on Breakfast on this subject.)
Reduce the number of prisoners on remand
Of all the punitive legislation passed since 1980, the Bail Amendment Act in 2013 produced the biggest bump in prison numbers. This disastrous piece of legislation was introduced after the murder of Christie Marceau by 18-year-old Akshay Chand – while on bail. However, this was not a failure of the existing bail laws. It was the result of an inadequate risk assessment by the mental health services dealing with Chand, who was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and found unfit to stand trial. He was released after a forensic health nurse advised Judge McNaughton that Chand had been taking anti-depressant medication for two weeks and could be “safely and successfully” treated in the community.
In response to the media outrage at the murder led by Garth McVicar, National passed the Bail Amendment Act making it much tougher for defendants to be granted bail. Projections by the Ministry of Justice claimed the new Bill would increase the number of prisoners on remand by less than 60. But three years later, there are 1,500 new prisoners on remand. None of them have yet been convicted of a crime. They’re being held in prison because a mental health nurse, not a judge, got it wrong and because National gave in to the moral outrage perpetrated by McVicar. As a result, the Corrections Department says we need a new prison. We don’t. We just need to repeal the Bail Amendment Act.
Release more short-term, low risk prisoners
The other quick fix is to let out more short-term prisoners early. The Parole Act defines a short-term prison sentence as one of two years or less. Short-term prisoners don’t go before the parole board – they’re automatically released after serving half their sentence. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 short-term inmates on a given day (although thousands more than this cycle through the prison within a 12 month period). The Board would be totally overwhelmed if it had to see all these inmates, many of whom are in prison for quite minor offences. So automatic release at the half-way mark is an administrative convenience.
A long-term sentence is anything over two years (from two years up to life). Since 1985 ‘tough on crime’ legislation has significantly increased the number of long term prisoners (see chart above); the number of people given ‘long term’ sentences between two and three years went up 475%. In 2015, there were 765 inmates in this group, out of a total of nearly 5,000 long term prisoners.
These prisoners can only be released before the end of their sentence if the Parole Board decides they no longer pose an ‘undue risk’ to the community. Most attend their first parole hearing after completing one third of their sentence. But that doesn’t mean they get out. In the last few years, the Parole Board has become increasingly risk averse and now less than 5% of inmates are released at their first hearing – after which they serve the rest of their sentence in the community under the supervision of a probation officer. Most long-term prisoners now serve approximately 75% of their sentence. The remainder serve their entire sentence.
So if the definition of ‘short-term’ was changed from two years to three years. That would allow an additional 765 inmates to be released automatically after serving half their sentence. Prisoners serving four or five years could be automatically released after serving two thirds. In 2015, there were 1,645 inmates serving between two and five years. Add this to the 1,500 no longer being held on remand and within five years, the population would be down about 3,000 – which is 30% within five years.
Prisoners also need accommodation and jobs when they get out. That requires long-term solutions, which would reduce the prison population by a further 20%. These solutions are addressed in How to cut the prison population by 50% – long term solutions.