How to cut the prison population by 50% – long term solutions

Andrew little
Andrew Little wants to roll out “therapeutic courts” to treat offenders with addictions

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.

9 thoughts on “How to cut the prison population by 50% – long term solutions

  1. Totally agree with your “…until we have a Government with the courage to ignore the moral panic perpetuated by the Senseless Sentencing Trust…” declaration. The prison population will never reduce as long as the government puts the responsibility for achieving those reductions on the Dept of Corrections. Corrections mismanagement often keeps people in prison longer than they should be there by fouling up the parole system.

    However, Corrections doesn’t send people to prison – Judges do that in response to pressure brought to bear by followers of McVicar and his SST clowns. Reduction needs to start with fixing the faults within Ministry of Justice. Given that Andrew Little is now the Minister there is a possibility for that to happen. National Ministers Power, Collins & Adams were responsible for causing the current mess over the last decade so it might take a while to fix that, however, Andrew is also Treaty Negotiations Minister …

    In September 2017 Maori accounted for 50.7% of the prison population (Dept of Corrections quarterly prison statistics) so the most expedient solution would be to force the Maori Hierarchy to use the Treaty Settlement millions to actually help their own. Andrew as Treaty Negotiations Minister may be able to exert some pressure in that direction starting with making Tribes responsible first of all for providing “half-way houses and reintegration services” for their own people followed by investing in measures to reduce Maori offending.


  2. This evidence shows the most effective and cost effective way to deal with crime is prevention. All the rest is picking up the pieces. Time for more politicians and academics to get to know the evidence and do the planning to make it happen. It is upstream investments in well planned and executed comprehensive strategies that engage early childhood, youth outreach, jobs and smart policing that can save $7 for every $1. Upstream prevention is much more cost effective than rehabilitation. Prevention better than cure but cure OK. Solution to Maori over-representation in prisons must include solution to Maori over-representation in violent crime – upstream investments in proven solutions relating to parenting, youth, alcohol and so on. Building prisons misspends – a 50% cut in crime rate would sustain large savings by avoiding prison building.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whilst no one wants to see a ballooning number of incarcerations and ideally I only think prison should be used for violent offenders I do not wish to see the current bail laws repealed wholesale. Personally I can’t see how you can advocate for this, and you are doing your cause an injustice by taking such a view.

    Prior to the current legislation being enacted:

    THE NUMBERS (from an NZ Herald OIA request)

    78,000 people spend time on bail each year in New Zealand. Between 2006 and 2010:

    * 23 were convicted of murder
    * 21 were convicted of homicide-related offences including manslaughter and attempted murder
    * 7146 were convicted of acts intended to cause injury
    * 1132 were convicted of abduction, kidnapping, false imprisonment, harassment, nuisance or threatening behaviour
    * 763 were convicted of sexual assaults or offending.

    To say that the 2,000 head count increase in the prison population is due to tougher bail conditions when 78,000 are bailed each year seems overly simplistic.

    Personally I would prefer to infringe on the rights of a few bailee’s than have 5 additional NZ’ers killed each year. How much value do you place on a life? Not to mention all the other harm caused by people on bail.

    Also the Ministry Of Justice estimate that the increase in Police numbers as proposed by the government will result in an increase in the prison population by an additional 400 people. Where do we put these people and how do we rehabilitate them without more prisons? Unfortunately these numbers are facts, and not my numbers.

    Whilst people advocate that the Police’s job should be crime prevention in reality their job is to enforce the law and thus make arrests. I don’t view NZ as a lawless state and as such I am unsure why we need to increase the number of sworn officers by almost 20%. This policy is a blatant vote grab plane and simple. Why is no one questioning this increase?

    Crime is a function of poverty and I believe that the money spent on extra Police (perhaps we could do with a further 200 Police to correct the reduction of 100 front-line police involved in traffic enforcement experienced in 2016, and to turn the tide of the poor burglary clearance rates) could be better spent on mental health, social workers, social housing and other measures to reduce poverty statistics.

    Sorry I am labouringy point which is we do not want to see more innocent NZ’ers needlessly killed by a wholesale repeal of the current bail laws.

    There is no silver bullet to fix the expanding prison population. As Sir Peter Blake remarked in winning the America’s cup it’s not about doing 1 thing 1,000 percent better but doing 1,000 things 1% better.

    Please take a more considered approach to your thinking. The reality is it’s no better than Garth McVicar and in reality you are both extremists, but at the opposite end of the correctional spectrum.


    1. Dan wrote: “To say that the 2,000 head count increase in the prison population is due to tougher bail conditions when 78,000 are bailed each year seems overly simplistic.”

      You’re absolutely right. It is very simple.

      When the Govt passed the Bail Amendment Act, the MOJ advised them it would only lead to another 50 to 60 people on remand. Now the MOJ says it led to the quickest increase in the prison muster ever recorded after judges locked up another 1,500. Its all documented on Stuff under this heading: A single legal change has caused massive growth in the prison muster.

      Simple. Nothing extreme about that – except the dramatic increase in the number of people held in prison on remand.


    2. Dan writes: “There is no silver bullet to fix the expanding prison population.”

      Yeah there is.

      1) Repeal the Bail Amendment Act. That will decrease the number of people in prison by over 1,500.

      2) Allow more prisoners to be released automatically after serving half their sentence – so they don’t have to go to the Parole Board. This can be done by changing the definition of ‘short term’ sentence from two years to five years. That get another 1,000 prisoners out early.

      Problem solved.


  4. Dan also wrote: “Personally I would prefer to infringe on the rights of a few bailee’s than have 5 additional NZ’ers killed each year.”

    So consider this. Six times as many people are killed on NZ roads every year as are murdered.

    Ten times more Kiwis commit suicide than are murdered every year.

    Personally I would prefer to impinge on the rights of a few drink drivers and provide more help for families who abuse or neglect their children than have so many people commit suicide or get killed on the roads each year.


  5. When did two wrongs make a right? You can’t use road statistics as a means to justify your opinion on repealing the current bail legislation which is literally saving lives. I acknowledge there were multiple failures that led to Akshay Chand being bailed, but the reality is that she would still be alive if he had been held under the current bail provisions.

    You do understand that bail, road crashes, and suicide are unrelated right? How did you draw that straight line?

    If, due to your campaign, the current bail legislation is repealed I would hold you responsible for calling up the loved ones of people killed by people on bail.


  6. Dan wrote: “You do understand that bail, road crashes, and suicide are unrelated right?”

    Everything dangerous is related – by risk. Risk is part of daily life and cannot be eliminated.

    Some people will be murdered – but far more will commit suicide, die on the roads or will drown after drinking alcohol. Alcohol kills 1,000 Kiwis a year. Tobacco kills 4,000 a year.

    Lets put our energy into saving a great deal more lives than the miniscule number that get murdered by someone on bail.


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