Cutting the prison population by 30% is easy: repeal the Bail Amendment Act and allow more short-term prisoners to be released after serving half their sentence. These suggestions are discussed in How to cut the prison population by 50% – quick fix solutions.
But to get to 50%, we also need to stop putting so many people in prison in the first place. And we need to reduce the re-offending rate.
Unlike the quick fixes, some long-term solutions will require financial investment. Others, such as raising the price of alcohol will actually increase government revenues.
Increase the price of alcohol and decriminalise cannabis
Despite the endless scaremongering about methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids, alcohol is by far the biggest drug problem in the country. In Alcohol in our Lives, the Law Commission said 80% of all offending is alcohol and drug related. The Commission concluded that increasing the price of alcohol 10% (by raising the taxation component) was the single most effective intervention to reduce alcohol related harm and would raise $350 million in revenue.
It also recommended an increase in the legal age of purchase to 20, restricting the sale of alcohol in supermarkets (which now account for 70% of all alcohol sold in New Zealand), and an increase in funding for addiction and mental health treatment. The National Government ignored all these recommendations.
Decriminalising cannabis would also help keep drug users out of prison. If the Government wanted to be really bold, it could decriminalise possession of all drugs as Portugal has done. In July this year, the New Zealand Drug Foundation released a similar policy, Whakawatea Te Huarahi. The Foundation describes this as:
“a model for drug law reform which aims to replace conviction with treatment and prohibition with regulation… under this model, all drugs would be decriminalised. Cannabis would be strictly regulated and government spending on education and treatment increased.”
This would make a big difference. In 2015, offenders with drug offences accounted for 13% of all sentenced prisoners. So apart from a few big time drug dealers who would remain in prison, if personal possession was decriminalised, that’s another 800 people or so that could be treated in the community instead of in prison.
Increase the number of drug courts
Decriminalisation needs to be aligned with a significant increase in funding for ‘drug courts’. Here’s how they work. When someone appears in court with alcohol or drug related offending, the judge gives him a choice. Instead of sending him to prison for the umpteenth time, if the offender agrees to be dealt with in the drug court and go to treatment, he may avoid going to prison.
The offender comes back to court every two weeks so the judge can monitor his progress. The whole process usually takes about 18 months. If the offender successfully completes everything he’s told to do, he avoids a prison sentence. Those who ‘graduate’ say this process is much tougher than going to prison.
This is a highly effective intervention. But right now, there are only two drug courts in the whole country, and they ‘treat’ only 100 offenders a year. Over the next five years, New Zealand needs to increase the number of Drug Courts to at least ten. Justice Minister, Andrew Little, has already agreed to ‘roll them out’. This will require a significant increase in funding for AOD treatment services in the community, but it would keep at least 500 offenders a year out of prison. If drug courts were rolled out nationwide, even more could be managed in the community.
Increase funding for reintegration services
Sending less people to prison is paramount. Reducing the risk of reoffending is equally important. Currently, within twelve months, 28% of ex-prisoners are back inside. After two years, 41% are back in prison. These figures have changed little in the last 20 years, despite a massive increase in the availability of alcohol and drug treatment in prison; and despite a concerted effort by Corrections in the last few years to reduce reoffending by 25%.
The problem is Corrections spends approximately $150 million a year on rehabilitation programmes in prison – on programmes that don’t work. There’s a reason they don’t work. The reality is that 15,000 people (most on short sentences) are released from prison every year. Many are alienated from family and have nowhere to live. Very few have jobs to go to. Hundreds have no ID, no bank account and struggle to register for the dole. In Beyond the Prison Gate, the Salvation Army recommended…
“that the Department of Corrections ensures all ex-prisoners are provided with six months of accommodation… and create industry schemes that will employ prisoners for … 12 months post release if they have no other employment.”
Here’s the crux of the problem. While the Department spends $150 million on rehabilitation in prison every year, in 2017 only $3 million was budgeted for supported accommodation – for an estimated 640 ex-prisoners. Until $150 million is also spent on half-way houses and reintegration services, the funding spent on rehabilitation in prison is money down the toilet.
There are many other options available. But until we have a Government with the courage to ignore the moral panic perpetuated by the Senseless Sentencing Trust over the last 20 years, our prison muster will continue to multiply; and millions of taxpayer dollars will be squandered on the dubious delusion that locking citizens away creates a safer society.