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%.

Corrections should get rid of all 2,500 volunteers

NuiBlack power member, Ngapari Nui (right), has been working as a prison volunteer for the last five years trying to steer young gang members away from crime. By all accounts he’s been doing a great job.

But this week Mr Nui was given the boot after the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust made a complaint to Judith Collins claiming that gang members should not be allowed to volunteer in prison. Since then two other volunteers, who also used to be in gangs, have also been shut out.

This puts Collins at odds with her management team – because Corrections likes to use volunteers. On their website, the Department describes how important  the role is to them:

Volunteering within Corrections supports our goal of reducing re-offending, by assisting offenders to meet their rehabilitative needs and transition back into society (reintegration).”

Over 2,500 well-meaning Kiwis are currently authorised by Corrections to fill this role. Despite their good intentions, the reality is that these volunteers don’t make much difference.  About a quarter of ex-prisoners reoffend in the first 12 months of release and nearly 50% are back inside within four years.

Who you gonna call?

There’s a reason these volunteers are ineffective. It’s because reintegration is a job for professionals and those doing it should get paid. Look at it like this. What if police officers didn’t get paid? Suppose the police was a volunteer force – no skills or training required. Would you feel safe in your community? What would happen to the crime rate?

What if teachers didn’t get paid?  And only those who love working with kids could volunteer. What would happen to our kid’s education if we did that? What if doctors, nurses and social workers didn’t get paid?  What if prison officers didn’t get paid? Only volunteers with authoritarian tendencies required. How many would put themselves forward for that – especially if they were asked to volunteer at Paremoremo.  What if city councils relied exclusively on volunteers to collect the city’s rubbish? Man, what a mess that would make.

With the exception of rubbish collectors, the people who do these jobs are mostly professionals, with years of training and experience. No doubt there’s a bad apple here and there, but most of them are also dedicated – they believe in what they do and they make a valuable contribution to society.

At the heart of all this is the old fashioned principle that if what you do is worthwhile and makes a difference, then you should get paid for it; and the more specialist your skills are, the more you make.  This is how it works in a modern economy.

Rubbish bagPicking up the trash

So what does this say about the use of volunteers to reintegrate prisoners and reduce reoffending? It says that Corrections regards the resettlement of prisoners in the community as less important than rubbish collection – just chuck them out on the street and see if anyone volunteers to pick them up. It means that as a society, those coming out of prison are worth less to us than our garbage. And it means all the political posturing about reducing reoffending is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

These are human beings we’re talking about. If we treat them like rubbish, they go back to the dysfunctional environments they came from punctuated by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and violence.

Carruthers.jpgJudge David Carruthers (left), current chairman of the IPCA and former chairman of the parole board, points out that in Canada, 60% of prisoners are released into halfway houses funded by the Canadian Correctional service; and that this has helped to cut reoffending rates dramatically. Canada now has over 250 halfway houses which provide counselling support and additional rehabilitation programs for ex-prisoners.

The staff in these houses are not volunteers; they’re paid professionals. Why? Because the Canadian Corrections service understands that this is not a job for volunteers, and those who do it make a valuable contribution to society, and should be paid accordingly.

In New Zealand, the Corrections Department provides funding for only two halfway houses in the whole country – Moana house in Dunedin, and Salisbury Trust in Christchurch. These two facilities provide beds for a grand total of 25 ex-prisoners at any one time – bearing in mind that about 20,000 people circulate through our prisons every year.

Prison cartoon.jpgThere are no halfway houses funded by Corrections in the North Island where the bulk of the prisoners are held; and there are no halfway houses for women anywhere in the country.

In addition to limited funding for half way houses, in 2013 the Government agreed to fund five agencies to provide Out of Gate reintegration services – to the tune of $10 million over two years. That’s $5 million a year – not much when you consider that crime costs the country at least $9 billion a year and the prison population is at an all-time high of 9,500.

Because these agencies are paid so little, they have no choice but to rely on volunteers. Perhaps it should be no surprise that New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of volunteers to prisoners of any country in the world. That says something about the compassion of the average New Zealander. But it doesn’t say much for the Corrections Department which treats those coming out of prison with less respect than the rubbish we put out on the street.

The reality is that even our rubbish is picked up and recycled by people who get paid – and I bet that costs a lot more $5 million a year.


The Norwegian prison where inmates are treated like people

The Guardian newspaper has published a couple of excellent articles by former prisoner Erwin James describing the huge differences between prisons in Britain and Norway.  James served 20 years of a life sentence in a British prison before his release in August 2004.

The two stories compare differences between the two prison systems.  The following is a summary and adaptation of the two Guardian stories to make the comparison more applicable to New Zealand.


Humane treatment of prisoners at Bastoy

An inmate sunbathes on the deck of his bungalow on Bastoy.

This is a prisoner sun- bathing outside his bungalow on Bastoy Island.

Bastoy is prison on a 2.6 sq km island a couple of miles off the coast in the Oslo fjord, 46 miles south-east of Norway’s capital.  Long term prisoners can apply for a transfer to Bastoy island, when they have five years left to serve on their sentence. All kinds of offenders, including murderers and rapists, are accepted as long as they have a determination to live a crime-free life on release.

Prisoners on Bastoy are treated very differently to the way prisoners in New Zealand are treated. They live in small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the island.  Each bungalow accommodates up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities.  Phones are available so prisoners can call family and friends.  There are private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed.

Prisoners on Bastoy all have to work. They tend sheep, cows and chickens, and grow fruit and vegetables. Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop.  The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance of around £70 a month to buy provisions from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket to cook their own breakfasts and evening meals. Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall.

Life for the prisoners is as normal as it is possible to be in a prison.  One inmate described life on the island like this:

“It’s like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners but here we feel like people.”

In other words, despite the seriousness of their crimes, loss of liberty is the only punishment.

Staff attitudes and training

The 70 staff and officers on the island take a pride in their work. It takes three years to train to be a prison guard in Norway. In New Zealand, it takes only nine weeks; the main requirement for the job is a willingness “to follow orders and set procedures” and the only qualification required is a driver’s licence.  

Arne Kvernvik Nilsen

The attitude in Norway is summed up by former Bastoy manager, Arne Nilsen (photo right) who describes his prison philosophy like this:

“I run this prison like a small society. I give respect to the prisoners who come here and they respond by respecting themselves, each other and this community.

“It’s an arena of developing responsibility. (In other countries) we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. But in the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

It works

It is this humanitarian philosophy that Nilsen believes is responsible for the success of Bastoy.  But all Norwegian prisons work on the same principles – which have produced the lowest reoffending rates in Europe at less than 30%.  For prisoners coming out of Bastoy, the re-offending rate is even lower at 16%. Compare these figures with New Zealand where the re-offending rate is 70%.

There’s another significant point of difference. New Zealand locks up twice as many of its citizens. Both countries have a similar population but Norway has less than 4,000 prisoners compared with 8,500 in New Zealand.   This is expensive – each prisoner costs the New Zealand taxpayer $90,000 a year and Corrections total budget is over $1 billion a year. Erwin James says “this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.”


Bastoy manager, Arne Nilsen is well aware of the impact of crime on victims but is doubtful that tough prison conditions provide much consolation. He notes that:

“In the UK, (NZ) and many other countries, we still think quite short-term, wanting to inflict revenge on criminals, wanting them to suffer for what they have done. But in most countries nearly all prisoners are going to be released. So what happens to them when they are in prison is very important.

“For victims, there will never be a prison that is tough, or hard, enough. But they need another type of help – support to deal with the experience, rather than the government simply punishing the offender in a way that the victim rarely understands and that does very little to help heal their wounds. Politicians should be strong enough to be honest about this issue.”

It’s hard to see these humanitarian attitudes to prisoners being adopted in New Zealand. The media are obsessed with murder and mayhem; politicians and the public alike have become victims of the vindictive penal populism promoted by Garth McVicar and the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust.  Compare this with public attitudes to prison issues in Norway. According to one prison officer at Bastoy 90% of the Norwegian public have no interest, “so long as people come out better”.  Now that sounds like a strategy for some truely sensible sentencing.

Howard League calls for 50% cut in prison population

The Howard League for Penal Reform is calling for a 50% reduction in the prison population. On Monday April 2nd the Wellington Branch of the League held its inaugural meeting at Parliament hosted by Labour’s Charles Chauvel.  Other speakers at the opening included the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Grant Robertson, VUW criminologist Dr Elizabeth Stanley and Peter Williams QC.

At the meeting spokesman Roger Brooking pointed out that New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment is about 200 people per 100,000 of population. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, this gives New Zealand the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world. On a population basis, we lock up more people than Britain which has an imprisonment rate of 155, Australia at 124 and Canada at 117.

New Zealand’s rate puts us in the company of Third World countries like Mexico and Libya – where thousands have died in a civil war and drug related violence – but which have similar rates of imprisonment to New Zealand. Our rate puts us ahead of South American countries like Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia and Honduras.

Mr Brooking pointed out that Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world with an average of 20 murders a day. Mr Brooking said: “In 2011 there were 39 murders in New Zealand, which is less than one murder a week. One a week is still too many – I know – but guess what. NZ locks up more people per capita than Honduras. Their rate is only 154 per 100,000.”

‘We like locking people up’

“There is no doubt that we are a very punitive society” said Mr Brooking. “We like locking people up”.

This is very strange when you consider that from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index – out of 149 countries.In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations out of 169 countries in terms of ‘human development’ – defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’.

Mr Brooking pointed out that altogether more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year. 80% are given short sentences and are in and out of prison in less than six months. Mr Brooking said: “Our prisons have become a revolving door for those who repeatedly commit relatively minor offending – usually under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Our prisons have become a holding tank for alcoholics and drug addicts. We use them to provide warehousing for the mentally ill and those with brain damage.  The majority of these people should be in treatment, or in supported accommodation, not in prison.”

The Government is planning to build a new prison at Wiri at a cost of $900 million. Mr Brooking said: “We don’t need another prison. According to the Corrections Department, there are currently 1,600 empty beds in New Zealand prisons already. If the government is willing to spend $900 million, let’s put that money into early intervention programs, drug courts, increased treatment facilities in the community, and supported halfway houses for prisoners on release.  Let’s put more fences at the top of the cliff instead of building yet another prison at the bottom.”

Time to decriminalise all drugs

See this excellent article by Gwynne Dyer about the need to decriminalise all drugs. Dyer is a London-based independent journalist, whose articles are published in 45 countries.

He quotes Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, and the most influential economist of the 20th century. Twenty years ago the right wing Friedman said: “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel (in NZ, read ‘gang’ instead of ‘cartel’). It is only because the government makes the drugs illegal that the criminal cartel (gang) has a highly profitable monopoly on meeting the demand.”

Dyer also quotes former Mexican president Vicente Fox who supported the US-led war on drugs when he was in office in 2000-2006, but more recently he has condemned it as an unmitigated disaster. “We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs,” he wrote on his blog. “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.”

Prohibition has never worked in New Zealand either. All psychoactive drugs except alcohol are banned here; recreational users and addicts are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  And yet over 400,000 Kiwis smoke cannabis every year, 100,000 nearly every day. The number of prosecutions for cannabis offences is rising and in 2008, there were 9,500 convictions. Enforcement and social costs have gone up accordingly. In 2001, the black market for cannabis in New Zealand was estimated at $190 million; in 2006 the social costs, which includes the cost of police, the courts and Corrections to enforce cannabis laws, were estimated at $430 million.

ACT leader Don Brash says this approach is part of the failed strategy of prohibition condemned by the UN and is a huge waste of money and resources. Mr Brash believes police time could be better spent investigation more serious crimes – ones with victims.

Indeed, if cannabis was deregulated and taxed (like alcohol and cigarettes), and police no longer had to enforce prohitibition laws against cannabis users, the net benefit to society is estimated to be between $400 and $860 million.