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.

The prison population is out of control – this is why

LightfootIn April 2016, the prison population reached a record high of 9436 and justice sector forecasts are for it to reach 10,000 by 2017. Trying to explain this, Department of Corrections national commissioner, Jeremy Lightfoot (right) said:

“The current increase is due to more people being held in prison on remand than was forecast; legislative changes have also meant prisoners serve more of their sentence in prison; and there has been an increase in people serving longer sentences for more serious crimes.”

BouchierCriminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier (left) disagrees. He says the lack of mental health institutions is a major cause of the rise in prisoner numbers. He says:

“One of the main reasons the prison muster is so high is that our prisons are our proxy for our mental health institutions which we no longer have. “

He also blames the three-strikes law, which is starting to take effect.

“We have got quite a number of people who are on their second strike now and the problem with that third strike is that there is no parole, so what we are going to be looking at is not only an increased prison muster, but a lot more prisoners serving long-term sentences, so that will increase the muster.”

Bouchier also believes the growing number of Australians being deported to New Zealand is contributing to the problem.

“These are people who are coming back to a completely foreign land, they’ve got no family or support… there is only so much that the probation service can do with these people. They are strangers in a strange land.”

Bouchier correctly points out that the underlying, root cause of the problem is actually penal populism:

“The (prison) population is going to continue to grow, simply because politicians see votes in getting tough on crime and they can’t be any more creative when they are addressing the crime issue in New Zealand.  Our prison rates are an embarrassment to us.”

Flying BlindNew Zealand vs Finland

In Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime, the point was made that New Zealand could learn a thing or two from Finland about rates of imprisonment. In 1950, the Finns incarcerated 187 people in prison per 100,000 of population.  New Zealand’s rate that year was 56 inmates per 100,000, less than a third of the Finnish rate.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Finns became concerned that they were out of line with their more civilised Scandinavian neighbours, which had low rates of imprisonment. This led to some dramatic changes in penal policy, as a result of which the number of people in prison began to drop. By 2001, the rate was down to only 40 people per 100,000 – an extraordinary reduction of 78% in the prison population.

During the same 50 years, the New Zealand rate began to skyrocket. In 2001, instead of being three times less, our rate of imprisonment was three times higher than Finland’s – at 150 inmates per 100,000.  Since then, more and more ‘tough on crime’ policies have been implemented and in April 2016, our prison population reached an all-time high of 202 per 100,000.  We now lock up almost four times as many people as Finland per head of population.

How did Finland do it?

According to About Time, a Corrections Department report published in 2001, three key factors contributed to Finland’s success. The first was widespread political agreement that a reduction in the prison population was necessary. The second was an understanding both in government and the public service that policies had to be based on evidence and ‘expert understanding’. The third factor was that the public in Finland actually supported measures to reduce the prison population.

Pratt2Professor John Pratt (left), a criminologist at Victoria University, put it this way:

“Key people in that society – people who actually knew something about penal policy and the consequences of imprisonment: academics, judges and senior civil servants – felt that the high prison population was shameful”.

This wry observation refers to Finland’s use of academics and justice professionals to formulate penal policy – whereas in New Zealand, penal policy has mostly been driven by knee-jerk political responses to public opinion. And public opinion on law and order issues has largely been driven by Garth McVicar, a farmer who has no qualifications in law, sociology, psychology, criminology or anything else that is remotely relevant to issues of justice or sentencing.

Why should we care? Because prisons are expensive and the cost to the taxpayer for Police, Courts, and Corrections is now estimated at over $3.7 billion a year – and rising. And because it makes no sense to keep building new prisons and locking up more and more people when the crime rate is actually declining. Unfortunately, the only hope that a New Zealand Government might be persuaded to try a new approach to penal policy is the growing financial burden these tough on crime policies impose. As the wonderfully wise Bill English said in 2011:

“Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure… It’s the fastest rising cost in government in the last decade… and my view is we shouldn’t build any more of them.”

Abused inmate with complex-PTSD spends 35 years in prison with no treatment

Trevor is 61 years old. He lights fires when he’s drunk. He has 17 convictions for arson but is usually so drunk when he sets fire to something, he doesn’t even remember doing it.  His lawyer asked me to conduct an alcohol and drug assessment on him late last year after yet another arson conviction.

Torture image

Trevor’s mother was an alcoholic.  As he was growing up, his parents fought and argued finally splitting up when he was just seven.  During the conflict and confusion, Trevor was shunted between his parent’s homes before they both gave up on him and put him into the care of the state – at the age of nine. Over the next few years he lived in half a dozen foster homes, occasionally going back to stay with his mother for a few months, before she kicked him out yet again.  He started drinking when he was 12.

The abuse 

Not surprisingly Trevor grew up feeling anxious and insecure. At age 16, he was sent to Lake Alice hospital where he was given shock treatment.  That really pissed him off and a couple of days later, he set fire to his bed.  That was the first one.  Two years later, he ended up in prison – where he was repeatedly raped by an older prisoner. The abuse went on for three years. By the time he got out at the age of 21, Trevor was suicidal, filled with rage and didn’t trust anyone. He was deeply, deeply disturbed.

As soon as he got out of prison Trevor started drinking.  He’s been in and out of prison ever since – 15 times to be precise.  He drinks, generally commits some petty offence, lights another fire and watches it burn. That’s when the police come and arrest him.  At the age of 61, he now has over 100 convictions and has spent 35 of the last 40 years in prison.  He has no friends, no support in the community and says he feels safer in prison.

Each time he ends up in court, the judge usually wants to know why he lights fires – and they wonder if he’s insane. Sometimes an enlightened judge orders a psychiatric assessment. Just before I saw him in 2013, Trevor had been interviewed by a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist.  I read the reports. They both decided he wasn’t insane – but neither of them made a diagnosis. They didn’t seem to know what was wrong with him. 


I believe I do know what’s wrong with Trevor: he has Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is an enduring version of PTSD which results from prolonged exposure to interpersonal trauma. The trauma is exacerbated when it occurs in the context of captivity or entrapment and affects the development of the victim’s thinking and personality. Individuals with complex-PTSD generally experience a profound sense of emptiness, chronically low mood and social isolation – combined with intense anger and rage.

At the age of 61, Trevor experiences all of these and still thinks about what has happened to him every day. But he is polite and articulate.  Talking about his life in a calm manner, he simply said: “What a lot or people have done to me is unforgiveable.”  But when he gets out of prison, he drinks to help him forget about it. He lights fires when he’s drunk because that’s what he learnt to do at age 16 when he was disempowered, lonely and distressed. These days, it returns him to the safety of prison.

Trevor has now spent 35 years inside. During this time, he has never even been diagnosed with PTSD let alone had had any counselling or treatment for it. The psychologist who interviewed him in 2013 wrote:

“Trevor Xxx was interested in receiving therapy with regard to his angry feelings, attachment issues and sexual abuse. Sexual abuse victimisation can be addressed by ACC sensitive claims. Therapy in these areas is likely to reduce his risk of reoffending.”

No therapy was provided. In my report to the court, I wrote:

“The Department should have provided counselling for Mr Xxx’s childhood trauma 40 years ago. Having then allowed him to be raped and abused in prison, the Department should have provided therapy every time he subsequently ended up in prison. If it had, it is possible Mr Xxx would no longer need to anesthetize himself with alcohol every time he gets out.”

The cost of insanity

Trevor is far from insane. He has both insight and intelligence. He knows he’s an alcoholic; he knows he lights fires when he’s drunk and he knows that makes him a risk to society. He also understands that society has to be protected from someone like him. He even knows the system sucks and he’s not going to get any help in prison. He told me the Corrections Department doesn’t have the resources to provide him with a psychologist to actually try and help him.

He’s absolutely right about not getting any help. But he’s dead wrong about the resources. It costs the taxpayer $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison. After 35 years, the Department has already spent $3.5 million just locking him up. If he lives another ten years and spends most of that in prison, Corrections will spend another $1 million on him before he dies. So you can’t tell me they haven’t got the resources to help him – it’s the system that’s insane, not Mr Xxx.

High priced Crown Prosecutors rorting the system

There are two kinds of criminal cases – serious ones which lead to trial by jury – and less serious ones which are heard in front of a judge.  The vast majority fall into the latter category and are prosecuted by the Police in the District Courts.  With serious crimes like murder and rape, police conduct the initial investigation, but the process of prosecution is farmed out to high-flying solicitors in private law firms. These are the prosecuting elite – known as Crown Solicitors – and they charge like wounded bulls.

Like everything else, their fees have been going up – by 60% in the last five years. So in 2011, the Government announced a review of funding provided to the Crown Law Office  which is responsible for paying these cowboys. The review was conducted by John Spencer, chair of KiwiRail and deputy chair of the Legal Services Agency.  Under the headline Fears for justice after cost cutting,  the Dominion Post reports that as a result of Mr Spencer’s review, funding for Crown Law will be cut by 25%. That sounds reasonable to me.

But not to Crown Solicitor Simon Moore, QC, who described the cutbacks as potentially “catastrophic”. One suspects he may have been referring to a likely cut in his personal income rather than any possible decline in the efficiency of the prosecutorial service – although other Crown prosecutors joined in the wailing and claimed that cut backs will lead to backroom deals and shorter sentences. Garth McVicar of the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust sang the same old song and said the cutbacks would undermine “the integrity of the entire justice system”.

The Dominion Post story ignored some key facts.

One: Prosecutions are conducted by both the police and the Crown Law Office at a total cost of about $75 million a year.  The police prosecute around 200,000 offenders a year  at a cost of about $35 million. There is no cut in funding for this.  Crown Law prosecutes only 8,600 cases a year for about the same cost. In other words, police prosecutions provide much better value than Crown Law for the same amount of money. Admittedly, Crown Law deals with the more serious cases, but they represent only 4% of all prosecutions – so their impact on the overall implementation of ‘justice’ is negligible.

Two: However, their impact on the cost is significant. Crown Law has a tendency to waste millions of taxpayer dollars on high profile cases which push up the overall cost. For instance they wasted over $1 million prosecuting David Bain – who turned out to be innocent.  Crown Law money was effectively thrown down the toilet because of ‘egregious errors’ made by police. Another $3 million was wasted prosecuting 17 defendants following the Urewera raids – with only four convicted on fire arms charges mainly because of ‘illegal surveillance’ by police. The case against Kim Dotcom is turning into a similar financial fiasco.

Part of the problem is that Crown Law does not carry out adequate oversight of these prosecutions. In his report, John Spencer commented that “the Solicitor General has a relatively ‘hands off’ role in performance management” and that he “has no clear mandate to control the indictable prosecution policy”.

Three:  Making matters worse, Crown Law uses an unaudited invoicing system which is open to widespread abuse. According to Mr Spencer, the Crown Law Office does not require the Crown Solicitors to declare how many hours they actually charge for.  His report said: “Crown Law was unable to provide any kind of summary of the actual hours spent on matters and/or the time claimed and paid for.  Nor did it have records relating to the split of hours worked by the different levels of counsel within the Crown Solicitor network”. 

The last sentence refers to the fact that senior solicitors charge Crown Law at substantially higher rates than junior lawyers who may do much of the donkey work.  But Crown Law has no auditing mechanism in place to verify which lawyer did what.

Spencer also found regional variations whereby a Crown Solicitor in one region will charge twice as much as a Solicitor in a different region for a similar kind of case.  Despite these massive discrepancies,  Crown Law pays all invoices with no questions asked. Mr Spencer described this cosy arrangement between the Crown Law Office and the Crown Solicitors as an honesty process’ but grudgingly admitted it was ‘far from transparent’.

Gigantic rort

Mr Spencer’s report is also far from transparent. When Margaret Bazley reviewed the legal aid system, and heard that defence lawyers were asking clients for ‘top ups’, she said they were ‘rorting the system’.  Crown Prosecutors are doing the same thing every time they submit an invoice to the Crown Law Office without declaring how many hours they worked. Unfortunately, Mr Spencer didn’t have the courage to name this for what it is – a gigantic rort.

It’s a real shame Dame Bazley wasn’t asked to conduct the review. With an astute turn of phrase, she can turn a garden trowel into a shovel or an office into a ‘carboot’. If she had been asked to review what the Crown Solicitors are doing, she would have called them what they are – out of control, corporate gold diggers.

Crime at an all time low – but we need another prison

New Zealand’s crime rate has dropped to an all-time low. Official figures released this week show that crime has dropped for the third year in a row. In 2010, the number of murders in New Zealand dropped by nearly a quarter over the previous year (from 65 to 46), while overall reported crime fell 6.7%.  In 2011, New Zealand’s recorded crime rate was at its lowest in 15 years, down another 5.6% on the figures from 2010. In 2012 (financial year), the crime rate dropped another 5.9%  on the previous year – taking into account an increase in the population of 0.7%. Homicide and related offending dropped by 21.5%.

The total number of offences in 2012 was the lowest since 1989 – the lowest crime rate per head of population since the introduction of electronic records. There’s no doubt about it – crime is down – and the rate  has been dropping since the turn of the century.

There has been much speculation about the cause of the turnaround. Judith Collins would have us believe it’s all due to better policing and her Government’s “get tough” policies, including the draconian three strikes law.  That doesn’t add up – because the decrease began long before National came to power. Victoria University criminology professor John Pratt would have us believe it’s all due to demographics. His point is that young people commit the most crime but New Zealand has an aging population.  That makes more sense, but no doubt there are many factors involved.

Distorted perceptions of crime

Whatever the cause and despite this dramatic drop in the figures, many New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. A Ministry of Justice study in 2003 found that 83% of New Zealanders held inaccurate and negative views about crime levels in society and ‘wrongly believed’ that crime was increasing. A more recent study in 2009 by Dr Michael Rowe, also from Victoria University, found an overwhelming public belief that crime has got worse despite New Zealand’s murder rate dropping by almost half in the past 20 years.

Reflecting the depth of these misperceptions, between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This means that despite reductions in crime, and despite our international standing as a peaceful country, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). New Zealand is also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55%) and Lebanon (56%) and African countries such as Angola (53%), Nigeria (51%) and Uganda (51%)

Many of these misperceptions comes from the so-called sensible sentencing trust which has been contributing to Kiwis’  fear of crime for over ten years.  Spokesperson Ruth Money was interviewed on TV3’s Firstline last week supporting Judith Collins decision to reduce parole hearings for prisoners who refuse to accept their guilt, or make little effort at rehabilitation. Let’s get real about this.  It’s the Corrections Department that makes little effort at rehabilitation. They refused to put Stewart Murray Wilson into a programme for sex offenders – and then blamed him for not attending.

And let’s not forget that more than 20,000 Kiwis end up in prison every year –   90% with alcohol and drug problems.  But only 1,000 prisoners a year attend treatment for their addictions. A majority of inmates also have poor literacy skills – but the Department’s rehabilitation programmes require the ability to read and write.  Kim Workman of Rethinking Crime and Punishment makes the point like this:  “Sentencing judges and the Parole Board can give directions for a prisoner to undergo a course of rehabilitation, only to find that Corrections cannot provide it. In the worse cases, the unavailability of rehabilitation affects the offender’s chances of parole.”

Sensible sentencing?

This is bizarre. The Government is willing to spend $900 million building a 960 bed prison at Wiri – even though there are currently 1,600 empty beds in the prison system – rather than provide more programmes and put more prisoners into them.  Crime is down for the third year in a row – and has been dropping for the last ten years – but for some reason we need another prison and less parole board hearings. This is sensible sentencing? Yeah right!

It doesn’t add up – the muddled mathematics of prison closures

The Government has announced that two old prisons will close – Wellington’s Mount Crawford Prison (which holds 120 prisoners) and the New Plymouth prison (which holds 112).  That’s a total of 225 prison beds that will go – permanently.  And about time too – those places are pre-historic.  However, the closures are being used to justify building a new prison at Wiri which will house 960 prisoners.  960 new places to replace 225 old ones.  That’s ridiculous – there are already 1,200 empty prison beds across the country.   Once the new Wiri prison is built there will be 2,000 empty beds.  This just doesn’t make sense.   Mount Crawford, New Plymouth, Arohata and Rolleston hold 700 prisoners between them. They could all be closed tomorrow  and there would still be spare capacity.

Instead, the Government announced that some units in Arohata, Rolleston, Rangipo and Waikeria prisons will also close. Does adding (or subtracting) a few units from the equation justify a new prison?  Not really. Units which close can be opened again.  Mount Crawford closed for 12 months between June 2008 and July 2009 but reopened when the prison muster went through the roof.  So unless these old units are torn down, they’re not really closing at all.  The Government is just hedging its bets with a dollar both ways – actually $900 million – which is the anticipated cost of the new prison. This is what punters do when they don’t know which way to go.

The lack of direction

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley and chief executive Ray Smith should be providing direction.  But they seem really confused.  In an attempt to justify the closures, Mr Smith said: “Every attempt would be made to ensure as many inmates as possible were housed in prisons near to their families.”  He must be joking.  The Department makes very little effort to place prisoners near their families.  It’s closing two small prisons which actually enable prisoners to be near their families and moving them into mega prisons away from their families.  Corrections moves prisoners around for all sorts of reasons. It moves them away when rehabilitation programmes it wants to put them into aren’t available in the local prison.   It also moves them away from their families when the local prison is full – which it usually is.  The Department moves prisoners around for whatever reason it chooses and in 2011 spent over $1 million transferring prisoners from once place to another.

Mr Smith’s vision has been clouded by the Department’s overpaid policy analysts and spin doctors. He went on to say: “The changes … will give Corrections a strong platform from which to target re-offending rates.”  Yeah right!  In 2000, the Department introduced “Integrated Offender Management” (IOM) system which was described at the time as “the biggest single initiative the department has undertaken to reduce reoffending”.  It made no difference whatsoever. Canterbury University criminologist Dr Greg Newbold described it as “Another wreck on the scrapheap of abandoned fads of criminal rehabilitation.”

In 2006 the Department dropped a rehabilitation programme called Straight Thinking after an evaluation found it increased reoffending rather than reducing it – after putting over 10,000 offenders through it.  In 2008, the Department introduced a new programme called the MIRP – or Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme.  This is described on the Department’s website as:  “A generic programme to teach offenders how to alter the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that led to their offending and assist them to develop strategies for maintaining any positive changes made”.  More prisoners now do the MIRP than any other rehabilitation programme. The problem is – it doesn’t work either. Corrections recently discovered it doesn’t reduce re-offending at all.  They just haven’t told anyone yet.

Because these programmes don’t work, over 50% of those released from prison are back inside within five years. The reality is that nothing the Department has ever done has changed these figures. It makes no difference whether the prisons are old, new, small or large.  These stats remain the same.

In the meantime, Finance Minister Bill English says the Government is facing the biggest deficit in its history. Thousands of public servants are being laid off, the gap between rich and poor is growing and more and more Kiwis are leaving the country.   These stats are all going up. Meanwhile, crime is on the decline, the prison population is dropping and there are  1,200 empty prison beds. These stats are all going down.  But the new prison at Wiri is going ahead anyway – at a cost of $900 million.  This just doesn’t add up.

Financial crisis solved – govt finds $900 million for new prison

The Government has just given the go ahead to Corrections to build a new 960 bed prison at Wiri – to be run by Serco. The prison is expected to cost over $400 million to build with another $500 million in operating costs. In other words, nearly $1 billion of taxpayers’ money is going to be spent at a time when the government is facing the biggest deficit in its financial history and public servants are being laid off left, right and centre. The chief executives of the 30-plus departments and ministries who have head offices in Wellington are under huge pressure to produce what the Treasury calls “efficiency dividends”. Even the police are not exempt and have been told to save $350 million in the next three years.

But financial restictions don’t seem to apply to the Corrections Department. New Zealand has built five new prisons in the last ten years – four under the previous Labour Government and one under National – the new Mt Eden prison also run by Serco.  Corrections is about to become the biggest Department in the country and the bill to the New Zealand taxpayer for locking all these people up has more than doubled since 2004-05.

But in 2011, for the first time ever, the Justice Sector forecasts indicated that crime was on the decline and the prison population was beginning to drop. The forecasts show the prison population should drop by 3000 by the time the new Wiri prison is complete in 2015. In other words,  New Zealand doesn’t  need a new prison.

Corrections propaganda

But Governments like building prisons – just in case they decide to be ‘tough on crime’. So they need to make up excuses – well lies really.  One of the justifications given for the new prison by Corrections Minister Anne Tolley is that it will allow the Department to close down Mount Crawford prison in Wellington. This makes no sense whatsoever. Mount Crawford has only 120 prisoners – while the new prison at Wiri will hold 960. Because of the declining prison population, Mount Crawford could be closed right now without the need for another prison to be built.

The other justification given by the Government is that the  new prison will be run by Serco who will run it more efficiently than the Corrections Department. That doesn’t seem likely.  They’ve just been fined $150,000 because a prisoner escaped. They will also be fined if they fail to reduce reoffending by 10% more than the Corrections Department prisons. Good luck with that.

And let’s not forget that Serco runs the Federal Detention Centre for asylum seekers on Easter Island and has an international record of abusing prisoners even forcing them to sleep in toilets. New Zealand prisoners also sleep in the toilets – but do we really want to fork out $900 milion so that Serco can be more efficient at abusing New Zealand prisoners than the Corrections Department.

The $900 million could be better spent on early intervention programs, funding drug courts, extending addiction treatment in the community and building a system of halfway houses to support inmates leaving prison.  But it won’t be. It’ll be spent on the new prison. Who said crime doesn’t pay? It certainly does. If I was a public servant in some other government department and had just lost my job, I’d feel seriously aggrieved.

Radical suggestion for the proceeds of crime

Earlier this year, Police Minister Judith Collins announced that the police have seized $48 million off criminalsfrom the proceeds of crime. The Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act, which took effect in December 2009, enables Police to seize assets without even securing a criminal conviction.

There’s a fundamental injustice in taking property off people who haven’t been convicted of a crime linked to the acquisition of that property. That’s theft – and the scale on which this occurs ($48 million) makes the police the biggest criminal gang in the country. This is not the only piece of legislation passed by National which empowers the police to breach basic human rights. National has even indicated its intention to pass retroactive legislation authorising illegal video surveillance being conducted by police. Constitutional lawyer Mai Chen has a number of concerns about this legislation and says:

“The Government’s proposed change to the law will retrospectively validate illegal conduct by the police.”

Ignoring the wholesale erosion of the Bill of Rights taking place under this Government, there’s another issue – what it then does with these so-called proceeds of crime. A spokesman for Justice Minister Simon Power said a fund for fighting illegal drugs was being set up in consultation with the Justice Ministry and the Treasury. Really? There’s already a fund for that – it’s what the police are paid to do and their budget is currently over $1 billion a year. Do the police need extra funding? Not really. The money would be better spent addressing the causes of crime.

Funding of substance abuse
One of the common causes is substance abuse. In fact, 80% of crime occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs. But currently only 25,000 New Zealanders a year are able to access treatment. This is because not enough funding is put into treatment – currently only about $100 million a year. In 2009, NCAT (the National Committee for Addiction Treatment) said funding for addiction needed to be increased by 150% just to provide sufficient capacity to treat 50,000 people.

The problem is NCAT claims that at least 160,000 New Zealanders need substance abuse treatment – and even this is a conservative estimate. In its review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, the Law Commission quoted a 2006 study which suggests 5.8% of the population have significant problems with alcohol and drugs and would benefit from treatment. 5.8% is nearly 255,000 people.

It gets worse. In 2010, the BERL report on harmful alcohol and drug use said 667,000 Kiwis engage in harmful levels of alcohol and drug use each year. About 120,000 of them end up in court – 30,000 for drink driving alone. When 80% of crime occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs, the treatment sector is clearly in greater need of extra funding than the police.

Turn seized properties into half-way houses
Among the proceeds seized by police were 42 residential properties and 10 lifestyle blocks. If the Government intends to hang onto them, these could be gifted to agencies supporting prisoners like PARS (Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Societies) and NZPF (New Zealand Prison Fellowship) – and turned into half-way houses for ex-prisoners.

9,000 people are released from prison each year – but the Corrections Department currently funds only two half way houses in the entire country; there are none in the North Island and none for women anywhere in the country. The result is that only 1% of prisoners in New Zealand are released into supervised accommodation.

Compare that with Canada where there are over 200 half-way houses and 60% of those coming out of prison go there. It should be no surprise that the Chairman of the Parole Board, Judge David Carruthers believes Canada is five to six times more effective than New Zealand at reducing re-offending.

$48 million is a lot of money. If Government is going to hang onto these ill-gotten gains it should be used to rehabilitate and reintegrate the crims who commit the crimes – rather than wasting it on the police.

The $6 million men at Corrections

Corrections Minister Judith Collins has just announced that 4000 Corrections officers will wear new blue uniforms to replace the green ones that officers have been wearing since the 1970’s. The cost of each of the new uniforms is about $1,500. Do the maths – that’s $6 million – which Ms Collins says will be met from the Department’s existing budget.

What the money could be spent on

What that means is that there is $6 million less in Corrections’ budget for rehabilitation or reintegration. That’s a problem – because 90% of prisoners have alcohol and drug problems, but only 5% of the 20,000 in prison each year are able to attend addiction treatment. This is because Corrections spends only $3.4 million a year on it.

90% of prisoners also have problems with reading and writing and Ms Collins claims to be doing something about this too. In 2010, 1,496 prisoners attended classroom based literacy and numeracy education – but only 9% were assessed by their tutors as having reached a satisfactory level and actually completed the programme. Nine per cent of 1,496 is only 135 prisoners…!

Another systemic failing is the lack of supported accommodation Corrections provides for inmates when they get out of prison. In Canada, over 60% of federal prisoners are released into half way houses – and this makes a significant contribution to Canada’s low rate of recidivism. In New Zealand there are only two such houses – and less than 1% of ex-prisoners get into them. No wonder so many relapse to alcohol and drugs and then re-offend.

What’s the real priority?

Despite these poor results, Judith Collins frequently claims that: “Rehabilitation and reintegration are a key Government priority in its drive to reduce re-offending.” (See the Department’s Annual Reports).

Yeah right! The reality is that governments have never put much funding into assisting prisoners with reintegration. But demonstrating its true colours, National recently allocated $12 million to host foreign diplomats and cover VIP transport arrangements for the World Rugby Cup. This includes use of the 34 brand new BMW’s recently purchased by the Government for the discounted price of $4.7 million. Why? Because the real priority is PR and appearances – and the $6 million uniforms will no doubt look good. They may even be more comfortable, but they will not hide Corrections’ continuing failure to address New Zealand’s problems with recidivism.

When crime costs the country $11 billion a year – and most of it is alcohol and drug related; when there are 20,000 offenders circulating through New Zealand prisons each year; when recidivism is at an all time high – and Government spends more on new uniforms and on VIPs and BMWs than it does on drug treatment and critical support services – any claims that rehabilitation and reintegration are priorities are a joke. This is all part of Corrections’ continuing campaign of misinformation.

The Emperor’s new clothes

Real priorities require commitment and funding – at the moment, neither is available to rehabilitate criminal offenders. The current priority is all about looking good – for prison officers, and for Judith Collins. It all reminds me of the fairy tale about the emperor’s new clothes – that’s another saga of self-delusion.

$11 million wasted on cell phone blockers that don’t work

The first cell phone blocking technology in New Zealand prisons was installed in 2007 – primarily to prevent drug dealing. In April 2010, prisoners at Rimutaka told alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking they were still able to make cell phone calls. A Dominion Post journalist spent a night in Rimutaka Prison and reported that he had no problems using his cell phone – even from inside the prison.

Budget blowout to $11 million

A year later, another inmate told Mr Brooking that cell phones on all three networks were still being used in every unit in the prison. The Dominion Post ran a second story concluding that the technology is flawed and provides only partial coverage. It also said the system was budgeted to cost $6 million but repairs and upgrades have blown the budget to nearly $11 million. Apparently, it will cost another $2 million just ‘to fully jam Rimutaka’ prison alone. That’s $11 millions spent trying to stop drugs coming into prison, while the Department spends only $3.4 million on drug treatment in prison each year.

Dubious contracts require review

On top of this spectacular waste of the taxpayer’s money, the Dominion Post also queried the way in which the Department allocates contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to private sector consultants and contractors. Corrections apparently failed to advise Parliament’s law and order select committee that a multimillion-dollar contract had been awarded to Honeywell, an international security firm given the task of setting up the phone blocking technology.

The Dominion Post reported that at least two former Honeywell employees now work for Corrections and actually manage Corrections’ contract and approve payments to Honeywell. The Dominion Post was so concerned about the Department’s dubious contracting procedures, it ran an editorial calling for an inquiry. Judith Collins is the Minister responsible and no inquiry has taken place.

The legacy of former Chief Executive Barry Mathews

Perhaps the saddest part of this saga is that although the technology is ineffective and cost twice as much as budgeted, former chief executive Barry Mathews listed its implementation as one of his three greatest achievements. His other top achievements were better sentence compliance by the Probation Service and the establishment of the Professional Standards Unit – which investigates corruption by prison officers.

In other words, despite five years as chief executive, Mr Matthews was unable to list as an achievement anything to do with rehabilitation, reintegration or reducing re-offending – despite Ms Collins claiming that these are government priorities.