It’s not the Justice system that’s broken – it’s the political system

Chester
Chester Borrows, head of the Justice Advisory Panel

Writing in Newsroom last week, Laura Walters discusses the work being done by the Justice Advisory Panel appointed by Andrew Little. She says the Panel has found that:

“there is widespread acceptance that New Zealand has a broken justice system”.

She says the head of the advisory panel, Chester Burrows, claims there needs to be a change of focus from punishment to healing and quotes him as saying:

“the type of changes being promised would take at least a generation to be delivered.”

Apparently, Justice Minister, Andrew Little, and National Party justice spokesman Mark Mitchell agreed with Borrows that transformative change like this would take time.

Key statistics

The notion that the justice system is broken is based on three key statistics. The first is that prison population recently hit an all-time high of 10,800 – although it may have dropped a bit since then. The second is that 50% of inmates are Maori even though they make up only 15% of the general population. The third is that rehabilitation programmes are ineffective with the result that 60% of prison inmates re-offend within two years of being released.

NZ Prison rate
Graph showing the growth of the NZ prison population 1900 to 2016

Rather than ‘broken’, the number of Kiwis in prison suggests the system is far too efficient. It has been locking up Kiwis in record numbers, currently 220 inmates per 100,000 of the general population. The reality is that New Zealand incarcerates more people than corrupt, undemocratic countries such as Honduras – which has the highest murder rate in the world but a prison rate of only 200. We also lock up more than other western democracies like Australia where the rate of imprisonment is 167 per 100,000; England & Wales (143); Canada (114); Finland (57); and Iceland (38) –  which is rated the safest country in the world and has exactly the same number of murders per head of population as New Zealand.

Solving the primary problem

So, if we solved the first problem – that there are too many Kiwis in prison – that would largely solve the other two. For instance, if there were only 5,000 people in prison instead of 10,000, only 2,500 would be Maori instead of 5,000. Similarly, even if 60% continued to reoffend, that would be 3,000 reoffenders instead of 6,000. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle institutional racism in the justice system or try to reduce re-offending, but the greatest gains will be achieved by quick-fix measures which reduce the prison population.

Once upon a time, Andrew Little would have agreed. He said he wanted to reduce the muster by 30% within 15 years. He seems to have given up on that goal. Instead of reducing the prison muster, now he wants to fix the entire justice system and claims it will take a generation – which is about 30 years.

That’s a shame – because the prison population could be easily be reduced by 30% within three years. All the government has to do is repeal the Bail Amendment Act of 2013 which led to an extra 1,500 people sent to prison on remand (i.e. not yet convicted); and allow 1,500 low risk prisoners to be released automatically half way through their sentence – instead of making them go before the Parole Board which, according to Mike Williams, has lost the plot.

The need for public support

Unfortunately, after failing to repeal the three strikes law, Andrew Little seems to have given up on amending any legislation at all. Instead, it seems he wants to change the punitive culture that Garth McVicar, the media and the two major political parties have generated in the last 20 years by talking ‘tough on crime’ – a process known as penal populism.   Instead of using legislation, it seems Mr Little now wants public support to change the public narrative – but admits he’ll have to wait 30 years to get it. This text he sent me a few days ago demonstrates his shift of focus.

Twitter - Andrew Little

Andrew Little needs to get on with it

The problem is, Little doesn’t have 30 years. He doesn’t even have 15. This coalition government has two years to run.  Simon Bridges is not doing well as leader of the Nats and so Labour may get another three years. So if Little is serious about cutting the prison muster, or reforming the justice system, he needs to get on with it.

And he’s dead wrong when he says it’s not about the legislation. The current crisis in the prison muster is a direct result of a raft of tough on crime bills passed by both National and Labour in the last 20 years;  both parties have been all too willing to jump on Garth McVicar’s bandwagon to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’.

Andrew Little seems to have realised the futility of this approach; he recently referred to McVicar as ‘loopy’. But there is no doubt that the current crisis in our prison system is the direct result of 20 years of fear-mongering and scare tactics about keeping the community safe.  Now Mr Little wants to reverse course. But he can’t repeal any of these measures because Labour doesn’t even have the support of coalition partner, NZ First, let alone the New Zealand public. I rest my case. It’s not the justice system that’s broken. It’s the political system.

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