Its easier to get addiction treatment in prison than in the community


The information in this article is taken from a 6,000 word research assignment: ‘Identify the Challenges facing the New Zealand Alcohol & Other Drug Court (AODTC)’ prepared for my Honours degree in Criminology at VUW.

The prison population has dropped by over 2,000 since the Labour coalition came to power in 2018. Nevertheless, the ‘tough on crime’ mantra espoused by political parties of virtually every persuasion has driven the prison population to record highs. In March 2018, the muster reached 10,820.  In the last 20 years, this pressure – known as penal populism – has forced successive governments to build six new prisons. It has pushed Corrections’ costs from $361m in 1997 to $2.4 billion in 2020 ($1,843 million in operating expenses plus $603 million in capital expenses). That’s a six-fold increase over 20 years.

Whichever political party has been in power, the Corrections Minister at the time has then claimed his Department had a responsibility to rehabilitate these extra inmates. In 2012, the National Government ratified this responsibility announcing that Corrections had to reduce reoffending by 25%. 

The demand to rehabilitate these inmates has enabled the number of prisoners accessing addiction treatment in prison to jump from 174 a year in 2005 to 500 in 2008, and then to 1,000 in 2011. In the 2019 ‘Wellbeing’ budget, Corrections Minister, Kelvin Davis, announced even more funding would be made available enabling 1,200 inmates to attend prison based treatment. That’s a seven-fold increase.

Corrections provides addiction treatment via intensive Drug Treatment Programmes (DTP) in nine of its 18 prisons. The Department claims these programmes have “delivered a consistently positive reduction in reimprisonment, though typically modest in scale”.  Modest is right. Corrections’ Annual Reports show these programmes reduce reoffending by only 5% in the first year after release. In 2015, the figure was 4.8%; in 2021, it was less than 1%. 

Addicts dying on waiting lists

While prison programmes have expanded exponentially, the availability of addiction treatment in the community has contracted – bearing in mind, addiction services receive only 11%  of total public expenditure on mental health and addiction services.  In 2005, the NZ Herald reported that, due to years of underfunding, so many treatment centres in New Zealand had closed, the number of residential beds in the community had more than halved. The headline read: Addicts ‘dying’ on waiting lists.

In 2019, the National Committee for Addiction Treatment reported that 150,000 New Zealanders experience problems with substance use every year, but less than one third can access help.  In some parts of the country, addicts wait up to six months for treatment.  The same year, the Drug Foundation said: “strict criteria, long waiting lists, difficult locations and unsuitable services all prevent people from accessing help” and called for funding for addiction services to be doubled from the current figure of $150 million a year.

In other words, penal populism has given the Minister of Corrections more influence over government spending on addiction treatment than the Minister of Health, such that it is now easier to get substance abuse treatment in prison than in the community.  This is a travesty when you consider that prison programmes reduce reoffending by only 5%, while the drug court in Auckland (known as the AODTC) achieves a 54% reduction in reoffending in the 12 months after treatment. In other words, the drug court is 10 times more effective than drug treatment in prison.

The MOJ’s flawed cost-benefit analysis

Given their effectiveness, it’s strange the Government seems so reluctant to roll them out nationwide.  It was only in 2019 that former Justice Minister, Andrew Little, agreed to establish a new one – in Hamilton.  In October 2020, the Government announced another one would be set up in Hawkes Bay.  Before making a decision to expand, Mr Little ordered the MOJ to conduct a cost benefit analysis of the AODTC. This was completed in June 2019 and claims the AODTC provides very marginal savings (returning $1.33 for every $1 in cost).

Unfortunately, the Ministry’s analysis is seriously flawed. To begin with, it compared the cost of running a drug court with the cost of a traditional court even though these serve entirely different purposes – one to treat and heal, the other to punish.  It would have made more sense, and been a great deal more informative, to compare the cost of treatment in drug court with the cost of drug treatment in prison – where the purpose is the same: to reduce drug related offending and keep drug addicted defendants out of prison.

The MOJ also failed to take long term benefits into account. For example, their analysis claimed the savings achieved by one defendant in the AODTC avoiding prison for 12 months was only $12,847. Based on this figure (which applied to 220 graduates), total savings to the taxpayer were only $3.32 million.  The MOJ appears to have used the $12,847 figure because the total number of offenders going through the AODTC, and avoiding prison is so small, it has negligible impact on Corrections’ operational costs.

The crux of the problem is that the AODTC only deals with 100 offenders at a time, leading to a very limited number of graduates who manage to avoid a prison sentence. But if ten or twenty times that number were put through drug courts, economies of scale would kick in, and hundreds would stay out of prison. Corrections could lay off staff and possibly close a prison. The resultant savings would have a huge impact on the cost benefit ratio. Unfortunately, the Ministry failed to take into account the cost savings that would accrue if sufficient drug courts were established such that they actually led to a drop in the prison population. On this basis, they mistakenly concluded that the financial benefits from the AODTC are marginal.

Who is Andrew Little listening to?

In summary, the prison population has exploded due to penal populism – which, in simple terms, is the result of politicians listening too closely to the ‘lock ‘em up’ brigade.  Cabinet then listened to every Minister of Corrections, each of whom argued for more drug treatment in the new prisons they were building. More recently, as Minister of Justice, Andrew Little commissioned a flawed cost-benefit analysis from his own Ministry – the same Ministry that produced projections claiming we needed more and more prisons.

Now that he’s Minister of Health, let’s see if Mr Little is willing to listen to health professionals and treatment providers and request an independent cost-benefit analysis of the AODTC – one that compares the benefits of addiction treatment in the community with treatment in prison. And let’s see if that analysis takes a long-term view, preferably one that covers 15 years, which is how long Mr Little said it would take to reduce the prison population by 30%.  Without that, sooner or later, we’ll be back to building more prisons.

Why the Auckland drug court failed to reduce the prison population

The information in this article is taken from a 6,000 word research assignment: ‘Identify the Challenges facing the New Zealand Alcohol & Other Drug Court (AODTC)’ prepared for my Honours degree in Criminology at VUW.

Former Justice Minister Andrew Little

In 2018, former Justice Minister, Andrew Little, announced the Labour-led Government wanted to reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years.  At the time, the muster had surged past 10,000. We were locking up so many people that, at the rate we were going, Little said the country would need to build a new prison every two or three years. Although the 30% goal was clear, how Mr Little and his Labour colleagues intended to achieve it was not.

One piece of legislation contributing to the problem is the Bail Amendment Act, passed in 2013, in response to the murder of Christie Marceau. This more than doubled the number of offenders held in prison on remand.  Repealing this onerous law, which according to some authorities breaches human rights, would bring the muster down.  Although Labour now has an unencumbered mandate, so far, the new Minister of Justice, Kris Faafoi, has had little to say other than offer platitudes about the need for “dispassionate and evidence-based examinations of ‘adverse events’.”  Another strategy bandied about by Andrew Little in 2018 was to expand the use drug courts –  designed to keep recidivist, high risk offenders, whose crimes are driven by alcohol and/or drug addictions, out of prison. 

The first drug courts were set up in 2012 by the National Government. One was started in Waitakere, the other in Auckland. Together, they were known as the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court or the AODTC. To get into the AODTC, offenders have to commit a crime serious enough to warrant up to three years in prison – assuming they were sentenced in the usual way in the district court.  But in the drug court, they are ‘sentenced’ to treatment rather than to prison. This could involve residential rehabilitation, mental health treatment, anger management, or any other counselling and support the judge and the treatment team deem appropriate.

The process takes up to 18 months. Participants come back to court on a regular basis so the judge can monitor their response to treatment and their compliance with drug testing to ensure they remain abstinent. The process is so intensive, the AODTC can only handle 100 participants at a time.

Drug courts 10 times more effective than treatment in prison

Internationally, drug courts are one of the most effective interventions available to reduce reoffending. The two drug courts in Auckland are no exception. Since the pilot was established in 2012, 46% of participants have graduated (see Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court quantitative outcomes evaluation 2018–19). Graduates are 62% less likely to reoffend and 71% less likely to return to prison in the first 12 months after treatment. When non-graduates are included in the analysis, 54% (of participants overall) are less likely to reoffend and 58% less likely to go back to prison. Compare those figures with addiction treatment in prison which reduces reoffending by only 5% in the year after release.  It means the drug court in Auckland is up to 10 times more effective at reducing reoffending than treatment in prison.   

Unfortunately, this has no impact on the prison population. That’s because the AODTC only takes 100 participants at any one time. The 46% that graduated is made up of only 220 offenders who stayed out of prison over the six years the pilot was running – an average of 37 less prisoners each year. Given that New Zealand has been incarcerating up to 10,000 people, 37 less is a mere drop in the bucket. That doesn’t enable the Corrections Department to lay off any staff, let alone close a prison.

In order to have any impact on the prison population, we would need many more such courts and would need to keep hundreds of offenders out of prison. Unfortunately, the Government has been extremely reluctant to roll drug courts out nationwide.

The target group

Clearly, there is no shortage of potential drug court candidates. According to Corrections, the vast majority of prisoners have alcohol and drug/and or mental health problems;  42% are assessed with a moderate to high risk of re-offending, which is the target group the drug court is designed to tackle. That’s around 3,500 inmates who could benefit from addiction treatment in a drug court. If 46% graduated, the prison population would be reduced by about 1,600. The Government would be well on its way towards reducing the muster by 30%. We could even close a prison.

Since it costs $120,000 to keep one person in prison for 12 months, this would lead to substantial savings to the taxpayer. With 1,600 less prisoners, the savings would be in the vicinity of $192 million a year. After five years, that’s nearly $1 billion.

Despite the extraordinary effectiveness of the AODTC pilot, former Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that only two new drug courts would be established – in Hamilton and Hawkes Bay. That may keep another 50 or 60 offenders out of prison.  But it won’t make any difference to the prison population, and it won’t lead to any savings.

This begs the question: Why is the Government so reluctant to roll drug court out nationwide? The short answer is that Andrew Little, has been listening to the wrong people. This link takes the reader to a fuller explanation.

How the lockdown unlocked 800 prisoners

Since the Labour led coalition came to power, the prison population has dropped from a peak of 10,820 in March 2018 to 8,521 in December 2020. That’s a drop of over 20% in less than three years – well on the way towards the target of 30% promised by Andrew Little – which he said would take 15 years.

It’s not entirely clear how this reduction has been achieved. In response to an OIA on this issue, in September this year, Corrections replied:

“The reduction in the prison population is a multi-agency effort that spans the criminal justice system. Determining the cause of a decrease in the prison population is a complex exercise.”  

The lockdown imposed by the Government slowed the use of remand by judges

However, the Ministry of Justice gives most of the credit to the coronavirus lockdown. MOJ spokesperson, Anton Youngman, told Stuff the remand population dropped by about 800 during alert level 4. It seems even crims were afraid of catching Covid-19 and stayed home.  Less crime was committed and many court hearings were postponed, so judges had little opportunity to remand offenders in prison. Even under alert level 1, judges were aware of the risk of infection in prison and more people were remanded on bail instead of into custody, compared with before Covid-19.

Time moves on. The borders are still closed but, for most of us (in New Zealand anyway), things are back to normal – which means everyone is free to commit as much crime as they used to. So when offenders are arrested, and the judge thinks they pose an on-going risk, the numbers on remand will go back up again. This is the view of the Ministry of Justice whose projections show that:

“The remand population is the primary driver of growth in the 2019 projection. The remand population has doubled since 2014. Over the last 12 months alone, the remand population has grown by more than 25%, reaching a historical high of 3,734 in November 2019. The 2019 projection estimates that the remand population will continue to grow (by approximately 2,500) and will make up 53% of the total prison population by 2029.”

Admittedly, the Ministry’s projections were based on trends prior to the coronavirus lockdown. But the lockdown is over, and a vaccine is just around the corner. So the upward trend in the use of remand is expected to continue.  This is also the view of the Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, who has just released his annual report expressing his concern “over the growth of  people waiting in prison that have yet to be convicted of a crime”. Part of the problem is that the courts are bogged down; nearly 60,000 court hearings had to be postponed during the lockdown. But even before the coronavirus struck, some people were spending up to three years on remand, without being sentenced.

The National government took advantage of Christie Marceau’s murder to make it harder to get bailed to a community address

Where it all began

This crisis began in 2013 when the National government passed the Bail Amendment Act in response to the murder of Christie Marceau. At the time, it was expected to increase the number of people held in prison by less than 100. In fact, the Act raised the bar (to get bail) so high, that thousands more were remanded in prison each year. Unless that disastrous piece of legislation is repealed, judicial discretion is so limited that the prison system will remain under pressure.

So far, the Labour Government has shown little interest in addressing this issue. Instead, Cabinet has focused on repealing the Sentencing and Parole Reform Act of 2010 – known as the three strikes law. In 2018, Andrew Little announced his intention to get rid of this onerous piece of legislation which has been widely criticised by lawyers and academics. That attempt was struck out by Winston Peters. While Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little were hamstrung by New Zealand First during their first three years in office, there was little they could do to address the profound levels of dissatisfaction experienced by those who work in, or are affected by, the justice system. When Labour won an outright majority in 2020, they promised to get rid of three strikes – this time for good – but made no mention of the growing number of prisoners on remand.

Unfortunately, repealing the three strikes law won’t make much difference. Only 17 people have committed a third strike offence in the ten years the law has been in place – so it has little impact on the prison population. The vast majority of those on three strikes are not sentenced to the maximum time in prison anyway, because the law allows judges to avoid applying such a penalty if they believe that would be “manifestly unjust”.  So although the three strikes law needs to go, repealing it will not address the crisis in remand.

To its credit, Labour now has a clear, unencumbered mandate. If Kris Faafoi, the new Minister of Justice is serious about justice reform, the first thing he needs to do is repeal the Bail Amendment Act 2013 and reduce the number of offenders on remand. That might get Labour somewhere near its goal of 30%. If New Zealanders were really serious about reducing the prison population, we could follow the example set by Finland which successfully reduced its prison population by 78%.

How Holland closed 23 prisons since 2014

The Dutch justice system is cutting the prison population by offering specialist rehabilitation to people with mental illnesses. Since 2014, this has allowed 23 prisons to be shut, turning them into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. Holland now has Europe’s third-lowest incarceration rate, at 54.4 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. In July 2019, New Zealand’s incarceration rate was 201 inmates per 100,000. 

When the Labour led coalition government came to power two years ago, Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that Labour intended to reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years. The prison population at the time was 10,394. Two years later it’s still 10,200. This is expensive. The cost of keeping one person in prison in New Zealand is over $100,000 per year.

Psychiatrist Melina Rakic says the backgrounds of people who go through the Dutch psychological rehabilitation programme are always complex

The article below is an except from the Guardian on 12 December 2019. For the full article go here.

Why are there so few prisoners in the Netherlands?

When Stefan Koning, who has a history of psychosis, was found guilty of threatening a stranger with a knife, a long custodial sentence might have felt like the only answer.

In fact, after a short spell in jail, he is back at his home in Amsterdam.

“Bob is a character from Twin Peaks, a murderer who creeps into the skin of innocent people and makes them do terrible things like murder,” says Koning. “There’s a Bob in me who says ‘kill this person’, that sort of thing. If I take my medicines, Bob is quiet.”

Koning is a beneficiary of a growing tendency in the Netherlands to avoid jailing people unless it is necessary. One key aspect of this is a prodigious programme of care in the community for people with psychiatric problems.

“We work on two aims: number one, preventing another crime, and then on psychiatric suffering and the social problems that come with it,” says Hommo Folkerts, a forensic psychologist and outreach worker who helps Koning.

“We don’t treat people with just depression – it’s people with psychotic vulnerability, autism, severe learning difficulties, often in combination with severe personality disorders, addictions, financial problems, no good home or links with family, and often they are traumatised.

“Nobody would approve of the crimes or violence they have committed, but there is a very sad world behind them. If you want to mend all this, it will take a long time.”

In 1988, the UK criminologist David Downes contrasted a relatively humane Dutch prison system favourably against those in England and Wales. Today plummeting prison sentences have left the Netherlands with an unusual problem: it doesn’t have enough inmates to fill its prisons, even after renting out places to Norway and Belgium.

Since 2014, 23 prisons have been shut, turning into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. The country has Europe’s third-lowest incarceration rate, at 54.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the justice ministry’s WODC Research and Documentation Centre, the number of prison sentences imposed fell from 42,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2018 – along with a two-thirds drop in jail terms for young offenders. Registered crimes plummeted by 40% in the same period, to 785,000 in 2018.

Miranda Boone, a professor of criminology at Leiden University, has studied the collapse in the prison population. “There is no doubt that the prison population has been reduced very significantly in the last 13 years – an amazing and, in the western world, unparalleled development,” she says.

Half of the people in Dutch prisons have received a one-month sentence, she says, and almost half entering detention in 2018 were actually awaiting trial. Experts attribute the decline to a variety of factors, including more sentencing before reaching or outside of the court system – such as fines – than other countries and the use of court-ordered mediation.

But there is also a special psychological rehabilitation programme known as TBS.

“TBS is a rather unique institution in the world,” Boone says. “In many countries there’s a limited choice: people can either be held accountable for their deeds and sentenced to prison; or held not accountable and put into a psychiatric institution. We have a psychiatric institution that is part of the criminal justice system for people who can be held not [accountable] or only partly accountable.”

Unlike high-security hospitals in the UK or the Netherlands, TBS has very specific conditions. People must have committed a crime with a minimum prison term of four years and have a high chance of recidivism: the programme works on specifically on their reintegration into society. If this is not deemed possible, or they refuse to cooperate, they can eventually move to a normal high-security hospital and be confined indefinitely.

There were 1,300 people detained with a TBS ruling in 2018: people stay in a treatment centre, sometimes after a jail term, and are treated for the psychological conditions that are thought to have played a role in their crime. Every two years, judges assess whether the treatment should be extended, and the average stay is two years.


For the full article in The Guardian go here.



Corrections surreptitiously constructing the equivalent of two large prisons

Kelvin Davis: another billion bucks down a bottomless hole

In 1985, there were 2,775 prisoners in New Zealand.   On 29 November 2016,  Corrections Opposition spokesperson, Kelvin Davis (now the Corrections Minister), posted a message on his Facebook page stating that the muster had just passed 10,000 – an increase of 364% in 30 years – and the National Government was planning to build a new prison.  Davis wrote:

We’re spending a billion dollars to build a new prison and I have just one question: what happens when that is full? Build another? That will be another billion bucks poured down a bottomless hole.

The reality is that the prison population had been on the rise for 70 years and was projected to hit 12,000 by 2022.  Kelvin Davis and the Labour team aren’t keen on building an expensive new prison every three years so when the current coalition government took over, Justice Minister, Andrew Little announced he intended to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent over the next 15 years.

It’s not that hard

Little even said “It’s actually not that hard if we choose to resource it properly.” The prison population at the time was 10,394.  Two years later it’s still at 10,200, which the NZ Herald described as a prison system bursting at the seams.

Andrew little
Andrew Little: “reducing the prison population is not that hard”

So despite Andrew Little’s claim that reducing the prison population is “not that hard”, the coalition government has made no progress towards that goal whatsoever – we still have over 10,000 people in prison. But to give credit where credit is due – at least the muster has stopped going up – for the moment.

The Corrections Department clearly does not expect this pause in the upward trajectory to last. In response to an OIA, Corrections advised that, even though they are not building a new prison, they are in the process of expanding capacity at eight existing prisons using Chinese made modular (prefab) ‘rapid deployment cells’ – although according to Corrections Association president, Alan Whitley, the deployment has been far from rapid.

The extra beds will be at the following prisons and cost $406 million:

Prison New beds
Rolleston 244
Tongariro 122
Christchurch Womens 122
Christchurch Mens 244
Rimutaka 244
Total new beds 976

Three other “prisons also have capacity projects in progress” budgeted at $916 million. Corrections claims the new beds in these three prisons “do not all represent expansions” as these new units will allow older units at these prisons to be disestablished. Obviously, older units are unlikely to be disestablished if there is a blowout in inmate numbers.

Prison New beds
Waikeria 600
Mt Eden 318
Arohata 69
Total 987

Total new prison beds

Altogether, the Government is adding a total of 1,890 new beds. Currently, each of the four largest prisons in the country holds approximately 950 prisoners.  By adding another 1,890 beds, the Government is surreptitiously constructing the equivalent of two large prisons – at a cost of just under $1.5 billion. This covert expansion in prison capacity highlights the hypocrisy of Kelvin Davis’ hope that Labour would do things differently.

Winston Peters
Winston Peters: “No you can’t repeal three strikes”

I agree with Andrew Little that reducing the prison population is not that difficult. But to do so requires legislative changes such as repealing the disastrous Bail Amendment Act which doubled the number of prisoners on remand within two years. The problem is that to pass the necessary legislation, Labour requires support from NZ First – and when Andrew Little proposed repealing the repugnant three strikes law, Winston Peters rapidly pulled the rug out from under his feet.

The coalition agreement

The problem is that when the Labour Party went into this alliance with New Zealand First, it failed to make justice and prison reform a part of the coalition agreement. The only law and order related issue in the agreement was to:

Strive towards adding 1800 new Police officers over three years and commit to a serious focus on combatting organised crime and drugs.

Not only did Labour fail to address prison reform with its coalition partners when forming a government, nor did it seek cross-party agreement with the National party on any of these issues. Given that National takes a ‘tough on crime’ law and order approach (which inevitably involves building new prisons), establishing a 15-year goal without cross party agreement is unbelievably naive. New Zealand has a three-year election cycle. Labour would have to win five elections in a row to make progress towards such a long-term goal.

You can’t win with two captains

Since we’re all Kiwis, let’s use a sporting analogy. Setting a 15-year goal to reduce the prison population by 30% without cross-party agreement is like playing an endless game of rugby without a referee. When they get possession of the ball (i.e. the power to govern), each side just does whatever it wants. The goals and strategies of previous governments are cast aside.

Similarly, a coalition agreement with New Zealand First which does not include an agreement to reform the justice system is like an All Black team with two captains (in this case, Jacinda and Winston). Jacinda captains the forwards and they want to attack (to reform the justice system and reduce the prison population). Winston captains the backs and when it comes to law and order, he just wants to play defence (and lock em up). When the backs and the forwards have different captains and opposing strategies, it’s a struggle to move the ball forward, let alone score a try.

This situation highlights the difficulty of introducing radical reform in a democracy with elections every three years. 90% of democratic countries have four or five-year terms which give governments more time to make changes. And the prison population could be reduced by 50% within five years. But even that wouldn’t solve the problem facing Jacinda Ardern when the other captain is constantly undermining the team.

The lesson that Labour should learn from this is that they should have been a lot tougher negotiating with Winston Peters before they got into bed with him and agreed to form a team  (apologies for the mixed metaphors). In the justice arena, getting into bed with Winston has been an abortion – with billions still getting poured down a bottomless hole.

Criminologists want name change – to Climate Crisis Response Bill

Climate emergencyCriminology graduates and a senior criminology lecturer at VUW are calling for the Climate Change Amendment Bill currently before Parliament to be totally transformed so that it reflects the reality that the world is facing an existential crisis.

Graduates taking CRIM 417 (an Honours level course called Crimes against the Environment) and their Course Coordinator have crafted a comprehensive submission to Parliament. The criminologists are calling for the name of the Bill to be changed to the Climate Crisis Response Bill and the Climate Change Commission proposed in the Bill to be called the Climate Crisis Commission.

The submission is supported by Ollie Langridge who has been conducting a one-man protest outside Parliament for the last two months calling on the Government to declare a climate emergency.

The submission also recommends that strategies adopted by Parliament based on the Commission’s recommendations should be made compulsory – with financial penalties for industries, agencies and individuals who fail to comply.

Finally, the criminologists are suggesting that regulatory impact statements (RIS) for all future legislation proposed by Parliament, relating to any matter whatsoever, should be required to describe the likely contribution of any new policies, procedures or regulations (resulting from the proposed legislation) to future greenhouse gas emissions.

This would ensure that in the future, Parliament would be required to take the climate crisis into consideration with every single Bill that comes before it. So, for instance, if the Government wanted to build a new prison at a likely cost of $1 billion, it would need to produce a regulatory impact statement describing how much carbon dioxide building and operating such a prison would emit. In other words, it would need to be sure that a new prison was compatible with the goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Another example is that it would require the Government to justify decisions such as giving $50 million to Te Papa (announced in the budget for 2019) when the building will likely suffer irreparable damage from rising seas by the end of the century.

Huskies on water
Highlighting the emergency – huskies appear to be walking on water in northwest Greenland.

Sweden has Greta Thunberg – New Zealand has Ollie Langridge

Greta Thunberg – flashing a rare smile

Hopefully, just about every Kiwi knows who Greta Thunberg is. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, she’s the schoolgirl in Sweden who took time off class to draw attention to the climate crisis. She protested outside the Swedish parliament with a sign reading ‘School strike for the climate’  kicking off a strike by school kids around the world. What’s remarkable about Greta is she realised our house is on fire at the age of 15, and is trying to put it out all on her own. The response to her courage and conviction has been extraordinary, from around the world.

Ollie Langridge outside Parliament – head down -demonstrating the message is more important than the man

New Zealand now has a lone parliamentary protester as well. His name is Ollie Langridge. At 55, he’s a few years older than Greta and has a wife and six children. Langridge began his protest two weeks ago after the UN Biodiversity Report was released, which warned Earth was in the middle of a mass extinction. He said he was motivated by the fear he felt for his children’s future and was going to stand outside parliament, seven days a week until the Government declares a climate change emergency.

Is there really an emergency? The World Meteorological Organisation advises that levels of greenhouse gases are now higher than they have been in the past 800,000 years.  The result is global warming. Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation says:

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now.”  

If that happens, quite a few cities around the world will be under water. That should put out a few fires – but a lot of people are going to drown first.

Greta Guardian
Greta – Guardian of the planet Earth?

Let’s check out a few other comments that Greta has made about this. At a TEDx talk in Stockholm, she said

“For those of us, who are on the (autism) spectrum, almost everything is black or white. We aren’t very good at lying and we usually don’t enjoy participating in the social games that the rest of you seem so fond of… There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.”

In October 2018, she addressed the ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ organized by Extinction Rebellion opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. She said:

“We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything.”

At the COP24 United Nations climate change summit on 4 December 2018:

“Our civilization is being sacrificed so that a very small number of people can continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury.”

Greta looking serious
Greta looking serious – go girl

Speaking to the financial elite at Davos on 23 January, 2019:

“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire – because it is”.

On 21 February 2019, Greta spoke at a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee about the need to keep global warming below two degrees centigrade. She said:

“If we fail to do so all that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history.”

In Berlin in March 2019, she talked about the school strike:

“We live in a strange world where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future – where the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most.”

At an April 2019 meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg with MEP’s and EU officials, she said if politicians were serious about tackling climate change, they would not spend all their time…

“talking about taxes or Brexit…  If our house was falling apart, you wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment.”

That’s Greta for you – blunt and to the point.  She may have started her protest alone, but not anymore. She’s got millions of supporters around the world.

On the other hand, Ollie Langridge has hardly said a word. So far, his is a silent protest. But he’s posted a lot of photos on Instagram. And you know what they say: one picture is worth a thousand words. So if you agree with Greta and Ollie that ‘the world is on fire’, head on down to parliament  and get your picture taken with him. Help Ollie persuade the Government to declare a climate emergency.

Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern,  now has an opportunity to show the world real leadership

What will that achieve? Possibly very little. But it would demonstrate to the world that New Zealanders care about the survival of the entire planet, not just Kiwis murdered in a mosque.  Jacinda Ardern earned enormous international kudos for her compassionate response to the Muslim community after those shootings. She has the world’s respect. If she now declared a climate emergency, people would listen to her as well as to Greta. And then she could take a picture with Ollie.

Brenton Tarrant – the only justifiable police pursuit in the last ten years

In response to the murder of 50 Moslems by Brenton Tarrant last week, the Government has banned semi-automatic rifles in New Zealand – a decisive response to prevent any future loss of life with such weapons. Tarrant’s homicidal rampage was brought to an end after two police officers tracked him down fleeing from the Linwood mosque in his car.  According to the police his intention was to continue his killing spree elsewhere.

By some strange coincidence, the two officers had been attending a training session earlier that day on how to stop armed offenders.  They pursued Tarrant, rammed his car off the road and arrested him. The two officers deserve a medal for risking their lives and preventing further bloodshed.

79 deaths in police pursuits since 2008

On the chaseGenerally, police pursuits in New Zealand do not involve such serious crimes or such dangerous offenders. Since January 2008, police have pursued over 30,000 fleeing drivers leading to hundreds of accidents and 79 deaths, nearly half of whom were innocent victims.  The number of pursuits and the number getting killed is growing every year. But the reality is that the vast majority of the 30,000 offenders pursued by police posed almost no risk to the public – until the police started chasing them.

So many Kiwis are dying that police pursuit policy is almost permanently under review. Coincidentally, the same day that Tarrant went on his rampage, the IPCA completed its sixth review publishing a 143 page document: Fleeing Drivers in New Zealand.

The IPCA found that:

  • 35% were stopped for a driving offence for which they would not have been arrested
  • 15% were merely ‘suspected of offending’;
  • 14% were stopped for ‘suspicious behaviour’;
  • 9% stopped for an arrestable driving offence;
  • 6% were simply routine stops.

The review recommended better training and more oversight for police but no change to the pursuit policy. Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, claimed the review relieved the police of any responsibility arguing…

“the review has shown that our staff generally manage fleeing driver events well…”

Police Minister Stuart Nash: “No need for wholesale changes to pursuit policy”

Police Minister Stuart Nash said the report showed there was no need for “wholesale changes” to police pursuit policy. Judith Collins and Mike Bush claim that when drivers flee, the police have no choice. They worry that if police don’t pursue, criminals will get away scot free and that more people will take off when apprehended.  Collins argues that the police cannot “give over the roads to criminals?”

But research by the FBI has found that…

“if the police refrain from chasing all offenders or terminate their pursuits, no significant increase in the number of suspects who flee would occur.”

All the police have to do is take down the car’s registration and then pay the driver a visit first thing in the morning when the adrenaline rush is over. Only a quarter of pursuits involve stolen cars, so most of those who flee would still be caught.

Clive Matthew-Wilson

Who’s the adult in the room?

These dubious death-denying justifications by those responsible for police policy ignore some fundamental realities – that nearly half of the dead are teenagers and according to US research, 42% are innocent bystanders.  Road safety campaigner, Clive Matthew-Wilson notes that it’s pointless expecting teenagers to behave sensibly when stopped by police.  He says:

“The simple fact is: the part of the brain that allows an adult to make rational decisions doesn’t form properly until the early twenties. That’s why teenagers tend to make impulsive decisions that often end badly. Given that teenagers aren’t going to stop and think, it’s up to the cops to stop and think, instead of letting adrenaline rule their decision-making process.”

Australian road safety campaigner, John Lambert, agrees. He characterises police chases as…

“basically the most hazardous activity you could possibly undertake on roads legally… It’s a total contradiction for police to be engaging in them when they’re supposed to be improving road safety. The fatality rate for pursuits is 3,500 times higher than for normal travel.”

Police pursuits banned in Australia

Doug Fryer
Doug Fryer: “fleeing drivers do not get away with it”.

In 2009, the Queensland state government banned all police pursuits unless there had been a murder or there was an imminent risk to life. Since this policy was introduced, not one person has died in a police pursuit. The Australian state of Victoria has a similar policy. The former head of road policing in Victoria, Doug Fryer, rejected the idea that the state’s cautious pursuit policy meant criminals ‘got away with it.’

“We would far prefer to drag an offender out of bed at six o’clock in the morning than try to drag them out of a car after a crash.”

If this policy had been in place in New Zealand, not one of the 79 people who have died since 2008 would have been pursued – because not one had committed a serious crime which justified the pursuit.  These were unnecessary and totally avoidable deaths.

So who’s responsible?

Writing in The Spinoff last year, Toby Manhire agreed that police chases are inherently dangerous but went on to argue that…

“a rush to assign blame for deaths in police chases can only distort the important discussion around a pursuit policy that should put human life first.”

This not only minimises, it completely ignores, the contribution of the police to this carnage on our roads.  We need to name, ‘blame’ and shame the police because it’s their policy that’s directly responsible for the pursuits that lead to these deaths.

The reality is that until the cause of the problem is correctly ‘named’, no one can be held to account.  If we don’t specify and identify the problem – police pursuit policy – inevitably there will be more phony reviews leading to more platitudinous recommendations about better police training and oversight.

It’s a shame it took a massacre before the Government was persuaded to take decisive action on semi-automatic weapons.  In the meantime, police pursue over 3,000 drivers a year – and 79 people have died. How big will this massacre be, and how long will it go on before the Government takes decisive action on that?

Prison population bounces back up to 10,000 – again

Kelvin Davis had a ‘cunning plan’ – that is no longer working

The prison population is still rising and is now over 10,000 – again.  In February last year, the muster hit an all-time high of 10,700.  Towards  the end of the year, it dropped to 9,700 but is now back up again.

At the peak, Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis announced that Labour wanted to cut the prison population by 30% in 15 years – otherwise we would need another prison

The media were all over the story. One NZ Herald headline read: Govt wants to axe new prison and lower prison muster. This was a reference to the new prison that the National government had been planning to build to cope with the blowout.   The Otago Daily Times trumpeted: Little lays out plan to cut prison population.   Stuff said: Government aims to cut prison population and fix ‘abnormal’ system.

Andrew little
Andrew Little – yet to pass any legislation to reduce the prison population

In an attempt to reduce the length of prison sentences, Andrew Little made an aborted attempt to repeal the onerous three strikes law. This was shot down by NZ First which refused to play along with its coalition partners. Then Kelvin Davis stepped into the breach. He offered temporary relief telling Corrections management to make administrative changes which would cut prison numbers without having to change the law. Writing in the Spinoff, Roger Brooking wrote: Kelvin Davis has a cunning plan to cut the prison population – and it’s working.

This helped a bit. In December last year the muster dropped to 9,700. Writing in Stuff, Laura Walters observed: Prison population drops by seven per cent in six months, system crisis averted. But administrative changes were never going to cut the mustard – or the muster. In order to reduce the prison population by 30%, the Government needs to make substantive legislative changes to reduce the revolving door that our prisons, and our justice system, have become. In another Spinoff article Brooking described How to cut the prison population by 50% in five years.

Government PR campaign

Embarrassed by his aborted effort to repeal the three strikes law, Andrew Little was in no mood for additional attempts at legal amendments. Instead, Labour launched a massive publicity campaign designed to win the hearts and minds of the public that the entire justice system needed to be reformed.

Chester Borrows – implementing a impressive PR performance on behalf of the Labour Party

It began with a criminal justice summit held in Porirua in August last year which the government called “the start of a conversation.” This was followed by the appointment of a panel led by former National MP, Chester Borrows. The panel held a series of meetings up and down the country, to which the public were invited to give their opinions on how New Zealand could develop a Safe and Effective justice system. Andrew Little subsequently made remarks in the media that New Zealand’s entire justice system was broken. I beg to differ. It’s not the Justice system that’s broken – it’s the political system. In the last 30 years, political parties of both persuasions have competed with each other to pass tough on crime laws which are directly responsible for the dramatic increase in the prison population.

One of those laws was the Bail Amendment Act passed in response to the murder of Christie Marceau in 2011.  See How the murder of Christie Marceau led to 1,500 more people in prison. This piece of legislation more than doubled the number of Kiwis being held in prison on remand.

Now that prison population is over 10,000 again, the number on remand is at an all-time high. In response to an OIA, Corrections advises that on 28 February this year, the prison population was 10,015 of which 3,421 were on remand.  That’s 34% of the total. In other words, 34% of prisoners in New Zealand have yet to be convicted of a crime.

Innocent3What happened to the fundamental legal principle:  Innocent until proven guilty? Perhaps Andrew Little is right – our justice system is broken – we lock up way too many people who have yet to be convicted of a crime. Isn’t that what third-world dictators, communist countries and authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes do?

More people killed by drink drivers under the limit than over it

Julie Anne Genter wants a zero road toll but says it will take decades to reduce it

In 2017, 378 people died on New Zealand roads. In June last year, the Automobile Association followed up with a media release claiming “We now have more crash deaths where people test positive for a drug than (test positive for) alcohol”.

This statement was simply not true. In fact, twice as many deaths were caused by drink drivers than drivers under the influence of (other) drugs.

The AA got its figures by making an OIA request to the New Zealand Transport Authority. NZTA’s response stated that in 2017, out of 378 deaths, 79 people died in drug-related accidents and 70 people were killed by drink drivers who were over the legal limit (or who refused to supply a sample). The point to note here is that the AA didn’t ask NZTA how many people were killed by drivers under the influence of alcohol; they asked how many were killed by drivers over the legal limit.

Based on this response, AA mistakenly concluded that drugged-up drivers were killing more people than drink-drivers.

Fake news

The media bought this erroneous conclusion hook, line and sinker. Stuff headlined the story: Drug-impaired drivers now involved in more fatal crashes than drink-drivers. The Herald said: Automobile Association study finds drugs cause more fatal crashes than alcohol. The misinformation even made it to an international audience after the Guardian agreed: New Zealand drug-driving deaths surpass drink-driving toll for first time. None of these media did any fact checking.

All of these stories were, in Trumpian vernacular, ‘fake news’ – because the AA forgot to ask how many people were killed by drink drivers who were under the legal limit in addition to those who were over it. So I asked NZTA the question. They then disclosed that, in fact, 154 people were killed by drink drivers in 2017. This is almost double the number killed in drug-related accidents. See the NZTA’s response to one of my questions below:

Question 10
Answer by NZTA to OIA question: how many people were killed by drink drivers who were under the legal limit in 2017?

The AA used their dodgy data about drug deaths to argue that police should be given saliva testing kits to tackle what they called this ‘silent killer’. A spokesperson for the AA, was quoted as saying:

“The AA has called drugged driving a silent killer on our roads for years and these latest figures confirm how prevalent drugs are in fatal crashes.”

There is no doubt that the number of deaths on the road related to drug use is rising. However, it is still nowhere near the number killed by drink-drivers.

Remarkably, the figures also show that slightly more people were killed by drink drivers under the legal limit (80) than were killed by drivers over the limit (74). What this suggests is that the decision to lower the legal limit from 400 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath to 250 micrograms in 2014 has had no impact on the road toll – which, in fact, has been going up for the last six years (see chart).

Road deaths
Alcohol & drug use contributes to over half of all road deaths

In 2017, 154 alcohol related deaths plus 79 drug related deaths suggests a total of 233 people were killed by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Deducting 21 cases where the driver was under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, that’s 212 or 56% of all road deaths that year. Because the AA has been misinterpreting the data for years, it mistakenly claims on its website that alcohol and drugs contribute to only one third of deaths on New Zealand roads.

A zero solution

This leads to an obvious, but politically unpalatable, policy recommendation. If we want to cut the road toll, we need to cut the legal limit for adults to zero – just as we did for teenagers in 2011. This might seem radical but the idea is even supported by those who make a habit of drink driving. At the Make A Plan (MAP) programme for repeat drink drivers in Wellington, participants are asked why they chose to drive after they had been drinking. Often they say: “I thought I was alright to drive”.

In other words, although they had been drinking, they didn’t feel drunk; they were unable to judge whether or not their drinking may have put them over the limit. Participants generally agree that if the limit was zero, the situation would be crystal clear and it would be much easier to make the decision – one drink and they would not be allowed to drive.

Obviously, this would not stop everyone. There are plenty of ‘bloody idiots’ who just don’t care. But for the generally law-abiding citizens among us, legal clarity is helpful. If you intend to go drinking, don’t drive. Such a move would demonstrate the Government was serious about the audacious target of zero deaths on New Zealand roads set by Julie Anne Genter in April 2018. Remarkably, in January 2019 Ms Genter changed tack 180 degrees and said it would be many decades before the road toll would be significantly reduced. It seems like she’s given up.

I know something that might help. Reduce the legal limit to zero. Any road safety strategy with a higher than zero alcohol limit has zero hope of achieving zero road deaths.

Public reaction to murder of Grace Millane racist, sexist & politically dangerous

Grace Millane

New Zealanders like their murder victims to be young, attractive, female – and white. When they are, we make a real fuss. Look at the publicity currently generated by the murder of 18-year-old Christie Marceau in 2011 and 22-year-old British backpacker, Grace Millane, just two weeks ago. Here’s just a few of the recent headlines: Grace’s legacy – Prominent women challenge men and Govt and Senseless killing’ – Grace’s death was like my daughters.

Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, felt it necessary to make a national apology claiming All New Zealanders ‘will feel heartbreak for that family’. The Guardian summed it up claiming that Grace Millane murder prompts outpouring of grief in New Zealand.  

‘Missing white woman syndrome’

It’s intense. Writing on Stuff, Alison Mau pointed out that ‘plentiful pictures of gorgeous Grace were available’ in this plethora of publicity and implied that all this attention is inherently racist. She noted that social scientists call it ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ defined by…

“the media’s undue focus on upper-middle-class white women who disappear, with the disproportionate degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases of missing men or boys, women of colour, and women of lower social classes.”

Mau reports that in Western countries like New Zealand, numerous studies reveal “viewers will stay glued to the set to hear endlessly about young, photogenic missing women – but only if they’re white” and can be depicted as “innocent” and “angelic”.

Mau makes the point that Grace is the 15th woman to be murdered in New Zealand this year.  But none of the other murders acquired anywhere near the same amount of attention – bearing in mind 31% of homicide victims are Maori and 62% of victims are male.  Paul Little argued in Grace Millane case highlights a terrible double standard that:

“Grace Millane and her memory deserve every tribute, and her whānau deserve every iota of sympathy that comes their way. But so did those other victims… we act as though all lives aren’t created equal.”

Christie Marceau – innocent & angelic

The murder of Christie Marceau

The media’s response to the murder of Christie Marceau was equally intense. She was also young, attractive, female and white. Christie was killed by Ashkay Chand who two months earlier had already threatened to rape and kill her. Much of the subsequent outrage, driven by Garth McVicar, was directed at the judge who allowed Chand out of prison on bail. McVicar even started a campaign to have the bail laws amended so this would never happen again.

Sure enough, two years later, National passed the Bail Amendment Act which doubled the number of prisoners on remand in three years and created a crisis in prison capacity. In response, Justice Minister, Andrew Little, said Labour wanted to reduce the prison population by 30%.

One of the concerns about the Grace Millane case is that Google and British media breached the temporary suppression order and named the alleged perpetrator. Peter Williams claimed the internet has compromised justice and wondered whether he can get a fair trial. Williams also found it totally inappropriate that the Prime Minister made a public apology to the Millane family. He wrote:

“Has a New Zealand political leader ever made such an emotional comment about a homicide victim before? More pertinently, why would the Prime Minister think it appropriate to comment on one homicide victim in a week when there were at least three other homicides in the country? Politicising a homicide case is not appropriate. Do it for one, and you really should do it for all.”

And not just for the families of attractive, young, white females. Each year approximately 50 people are murdered in New Zealand – giving us one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. No one in the Government has ever apologised to any of these families – not even to the family of Christie Marceau where a judge was (incorrectly) accused of being at fault.

Media commentator, Jim Tucker, thinks the outpouring of outrage is because Grace’s murder has embarrassed us overseas.  It seems we’re so embarrassed that a …

“cohort of prominent women including former Prime Ministers Helen Clarke and Jenny Shipley signed an open letter to the men and government of New Zealand and submitted it to the Prime Minister’s office. The letter stated that New Zealand had some of the worst statistics for violence against women in the OECD and listed actions each party could take to make our country a safer place.”

Of course, different countries define and report violence using a variety of methodologies so it is not clear how reliable these statistics actually are. Nevertheless, in yet another headline, the Government says it is listening’.

That’s a worry. Ever since the law and order referendum initiated by Norm Withers in 1999, New Zealand has been listening to populists with a penchant for punitive legislation. Just this year, a Bill was introduced requiring judges to impose a six-month prison sentence on anyone who attacks a paramedic or other first responder. At the beginning of December, new legislation came into effect penalising attempted strangulation. Both of these will put more people in prison.

Why is this politically dangerous?

It’s dangerous because it risks escalating the pathetic competition between political parties to be tough on crime which has gone on for the last 20 years – and because it will undermine Andrew Little’s aborted attempts to reduce the prison population.

So how will politicians respond to the murder of Grace Millane? Chances are some right-wing MP will try to re-introduce a private member’s Bill advocating the death penalty for the murder of attractive, young, white women. Further down the track, some other MPs could decide to hang the killers of less attractive, young, white women – or even wrinkled, older, white women. That would keep the prison population down.

Gavin Hawthorn: sending him to prison does not make us any safer

Gavin Hawthorn: 13 convictions for drink driving

News that Gavin Hawthorn has recently been convicted of drink driving yet again has caused oodles of outrage in the media. Hawthorn has already killed four people in two separate accidents. In 2004 he was convicted of manslaughter over the death of his friend Lance Fryer and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in 2013 and has now been caught drink-driving again – for the 13th time. On this occasion Judge Johnston sentenced him to six months home detention and disqualified him from driving for two years.

The headlines were horrified. Stuff stated it like this: Recidivist drink-driver Gavin Hawthorn convicted again, leading to call for permanent driving ban. Newshub harrumphed that it was ‘Appalling’: Porirua man Gavin Hawthorn escapes jail after 12th drink-driving conviction. The Herald highlighted: NZ’s worst drink driver caught drunk behind the wheel again. Duncan Garner was especially incensed arguing that:

“This judge has failed to keep us safe as New Zealanders. We’ve been let down by his profession once again. He has let us down, now we are in harm’s way.” He went on to say the case was an example of why the public “have little confidence in the justice system”.

Blaming judges is misguided and myopic.  This is what Garth McVicar and the senseless sentencing trust have been doing for years. All that has achieved is a burgeoning prison population and a crisis in capacity. At $100,000 per prisoner, per year and a reoffending rate of 60% within two years of release, clearly this is a failed strategy – and a massive waste of taxpayer money.

Keeping us safe

The justification for all this moral outrage is the dubious assumption that sending ‘dangerous’ people to prison ‘keeps us safe’. Does it? Let’s look at the facts.

Gavin Hawthorn killed his last victim in 2003. Between 2003 and 2017, another 5,402 people have died on New Zealand roads – an average of 360 people a year – or nearly one every day. Half of these deaths are caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both.

The point is that most of these people died during the ten years that Hawthorn was in prison. Clearly his incarceration did not make us any safer. Giving the judge a hard time for not sending him to prison on his current conviction does not change this reality.

So, what’s the solution? The only intelligent comments in the media came from Andrew Dickens on NewstalkZB who asked rather quaintly: What to do with our drinkiest drink driver?  He argued with considerable insight that:

“Indefinite incarceration and licence deprivation is not what this man needs. What he needs is to STOP FREAKING DRINKING.”

Drug courts

Dickens’ answer to the problems posed by the likes of Gavin Hawthorn is to put him into a drug court (in New Zealand known as AODTC – Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts). To be eligible, defendants must be alcohol or drug dependent and facing a prison sentence. A treatment plan for each participant is developed by the judge, taking into account the views of treatment providers, support workers and lawyers; it involves rehabilitation, counselling, drug-testing, community service and making amends to victims.

Dickens describes the process like this:

“They’re a three-phase, 18-month-long programme designed for high-needs and high-risk addicts who are facing prison, or who have tried but failed treatment programmes in the past.”

Drug courts have the potential to help thousands of offenders, not just drink drivers. And there is no shortage of available candidates in New Zealand. In 2011, judges told the Law Commission that 80% of all offending was alcohol and drug related. In 2017, Northland district court  judge, Greg Davis, who sees a lot of methamphetamine related crime, said up to 90% of all offending was related to issues with addiction.

Currently, the only two drug courts in the country are both in Auckland. Hawthorn is serving his sentence of Home Detention in Paraparaumu – so a drug court in Wellington would be helpful. We need such courts in all our major cities.

Compulsory AOD assessment

Another strategy is available to target drink drivers in particular – one that also involves assessment and treatment. Currently out of 20,000 people convicted of this offence each year, only 5% – those disqualified indefinitely – are required to have an alcohol and drug assessment to see if they have their drinking under control before getting their driver’s licence back. Many of the remainder are sent to prison – just like Gavin Hawthorn. If any drink driver who incurred a second conviction was required by law to have an AOD assessment before their disqualification could be lifted, fully half of the 20,000 drink drivers would be assessed. As a result, there would be a lot less people in prison.

An evaluation of the NZ drug courts shows they also reduce imprisonment – 282 participants have been kept out of prison during the six years the two Auckland courts have been operating.

So if the government implemented these two strategies, this would shift the focus of our justice system away from punishing alcohol and drug addicted offenders towards treating them instead.  This would surely help Justice Minister, Andrew Little, get closer to the Government goal of reducing the prison population by 30%. Maybe it would even moderate the media to tone down their moral outrage.

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

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.

Kelvin Davis has a cunning plan

Baldrick: “I have a cunning plan!”

When Blackadder and Baldrick were in a difficult situation, Baldrick would come up with a turn of phrase which became a standing joke: “I have a cunning plan” he would say.

The Labour government is also in a tricky situation with regard to justice reform. Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis want to reduce the prison population by 30%. The fly in the ointment is NZ First which shot down Little’s recent proposal to repeal the three strikes law.

Given NZ First’s uncompromising stance on law and order, Labour is unlikely to pass any legislative proposals related to crime and punishment in this parliamentary term. But just as Baldrick used to do, Kelvin Davis and Corrections have come up with a cunning plan.

Instead of repealing the three strikes law or the Bail Amendment Act, Davis has persuaded management in the Department to alleviate obstacles in the way offenders are processed in prison. Corrections deputy national commissioner, Leigh Marsh (below), was put in charge of the project and has come up with two main strategies.

Leigh Marsh
Leigh Marsh, deputy national commissioner – the man with a plan.

Bail Support Service

One is to assist the growing number of defendants on remand apply for bail in the community instead of spending months in prison waiting for their case to come up.

Since the Bail Amendment Act was passed in 2013 making it more difficult for defendants to get bail, offenders are now far more likely to be remanded in prison. However, they may be eligible to apply for electronically monitored bail (known as ebail); the defendant has to come up with a suitable address, and whoever lives there (usually family), has to give their permission.

To apply, the offender has to write to the people in the house and ask if he can stay there on ebail. He may not know the exact address which is another obstacle. Even if he does, whoever he writes to might not bother to reply. If they say ‘no’, then the prisoner has to come up with someone else to write to.  Of course, all this assumes the prisoner can read and write – when the reality is that 70% of those in prison struggle with basic literacy.  In other words, this is a slow frustrating procedure and most of those on remand just give up and wait till their day in court.

According to Corrections deputy national commissioner, Leigh Marsh, Corrections has put a rocket under remand by creating a Bail Support Service and a bail phone App.  Bail Officers visit the prisoner the day after he is remanded in prison to assist with the paperwork, and contact the appropriate support people. They also liase with defence counsel and try to get the defendant’s bail application before a judge within a week. This has cut dramatically the amount of time that prisoners spend on remand. Once offenders get out, they get their cell phone back and the App helps them stay on track with their bail conditions.

Parole ready

Sir Ron Young.jpg
Sir Ron Young – parole board chairman

Corrections’ other new strategy is to help sentenced prisoners become ‘parole ready’. The background to this is that the Parole Board will not generally release any prisoner until he, or she, has completed a criminogenic rehabilitation programme. Often the Board insists that prisoners must do two rehab programmes before they are considered ready for release.

The problem was that until Kelvin Davis got involved, Corrections made little effort to put prisoners into programmes until they were near the end of their sentence.  That means most prisoners would end up serving almost their entire sentence, even though they became eligible for parole after completing one third.

By failing to put prisoners into programs early on in their sentence, Corrections was actively preventing them from being paroled – including low to medium risk prisoners who make up the bulk of the prison population.

Leigh Marsh says that Corrections is now making more of an effort to place prisoners into programs before their first parole hearing – something they have never done before.  As a result, in the last 12 months approximately 5% more prisoners have been released on parole.


These changes have made a significant difference.  According to Newsroom:

ImpactThe population peaked in March at 10,820 and on 3 October had dropped to 10,035 – a 7.3% fall.

Two days later Stuff reported:

“The prison population has dipped below 10,000 for the first time in more than two years”.

Given that prison numbers have been rising steadily for over 50 years, it is too early to tell whether this is just a temporary blip or part of a new trend. One thing is clear. This new approach involves a great deal more respect and humanity for offenders and a much greater commitment to due process.  Instead of chucking offenders into prison to take their chances with an unresponsive system riddled with insurmountable obstacles, now Corrections is actively trying to help offenders get out and stay out.

I have to say – that’s a novel idea – one that has never been tried before in New Zealand.

Cost savings

But wait, there’s more. It costs $110,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Since there are already 800 less prisoners, that’s a potential saving of $88 million in one year. If these initiatives had been introduced 20 years ago, the savings would have been $1.7 billion. If these initiatives continue to work and eventually cut the prison population by Labour’s goal of 3,000, that would save $330 million a year. Over the next 20 years, we would save $6.6 billion.

Even Blackadder would agree – this is a very cunning plan. It’s called common sense.