Public protection orders – Collins can’t count

In response to the media hype about Murray Wilson being released in Wanganui, Justice Minister Judith Collins has just introduced a new Bill allowing the imposition of public protection orders on child sex offenders and violent criminals. This will enable authorities to keep them in prison after they’ve finished their sentence – or return them to prison if they’ve already been released.

Section 9 of the new Bill says that for any application to keep someone in prison, there has to be “a very high risk of imminent serious sexual or violent offending by the respondent.” The Corrections Department assesses the risk of reoffending using a mathematical formula known as the RoCRoI (Risk of Conviction x Risk of Imprisonment).  A score on the RoCRoI of .7 or above means the prisoner has a 70% risk of reoffending – which is classified by the Department as ‘high risk’. A score between .3 and .7 (30% to 70%) is considered medium risk and a score of .3 or below is considered low risk (30% or less).

Dubious mathematics

This is where it gets interesting.   Judith Collins, says the proposed legislation will only apply to “a very small number of extremely dangerous people” – between 5 and 12 offenders over a ten year period. Clearly maths is not Ms Collins strong point. Approximately 7,250 inmates are released from prison each year (most after serving only short sentences). In 2011, 28.9% of these prisoners were classified as having a “high risk” of reoffending – that’s a colossal 2,095 “high risk” prisoners released into the street every year. Only 5.3% had a RoCRoI score of .9 or above.  That’s 384 prisoners released each year classified as “very high risk”.

What that means is that over a 10 year period, approximately 3,840 released prisoners will meet the criteria of “very high risk”. However, Murray Wilson is not one of them. Murray Wilson’s lawyer, Andrew McKenzie says Wilson’s RoCRoI is only .48 – which means he is assessed by Corrections as having a 48% risk of reoffending. That puts him in the “medium risk” category.

His true risk may be even lower than that. Victoria University professor, Tony Ward, a clinical psychologist with expertise in sexual offenders says that given Mr Wilson’s age, he was unlikely to reoffend. Prof Ward said: “The reoffending rate for very high risk people over 60 is about six per cent.” That would mean Wilson was in fact “very low risk”.

In other words, a sex offender like Murray Wilson doesn’t even meet the criteria for these protection orders and all the publicity about him being a “high risk” offender is absolute nonsense. What this seems to mean is that if these public protection orders become law,  they can be applied to virtually anyone in prison – even those assessed at low or medium risk.  One has to conclude it’s not crime or prisoners who are out of control in New Zealand, it’s the media and unscrupulous politicians like Judith Collins who will go to almost any length to ramp up public hysteria so government can draft ever more draconian laws.  It won’t be long before we need yet another new prison.

The MIRP doesn’t work

The Government has set 10 targets for the public sector over the next three to five years. One of those targets is a reduction in criminal reoffending. The responsibility for this clearly falls on the Corrections Department – which currently provides a number of rehabilitation programmes focussed on different aspects of offending such as anti-social thinking,  drug addiction or a propensity for violence.

Most offenders are referred to the MIRP (Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme) which is available both in prison and to offenders in the community.  The MIRP was introduced by Corrections in 2008 and replaced a programme called Straight Thinking which had been the cornerstone of the Department’s rehabilitation efforts for years. The Department’s website says:  “The aim of (Straight Thinking) is to assist offenders address one of the main causes of their offending – that is the lack of critical reasoning required for social integration”. 

Between 2000 and 2006, over 10,000 offenders were required by Corrections to attend Straight Thinking.  The problem was – it didn’t work. The Department cancelled it in 2006 after an evaluation found it increased the likelihood of offending rather than reducing it.

The flaws in the programme 

One of Straight Thinking’s flaws was that it was a cognitive skills programme requiring better than average literacy skills – a bit of  a rarity among those in prison.  According to Corrections executive prison manager, Dr Brendan Anstiss, such programmes ‘have at best a modest effective on recidivism’.   And yet the Department went on to introduce the MIRP – described on its 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”. 

This sounds remarkably similar to the description of the Straight Thinking programme it replaced. In 2010, the Department completed an initial evaluation which indicated the MIRP reduced subsequent re-imprisonment by 2%. The Department seemed to think this was a good outcome – the Annual Report for 2010 described the result like this:

“The  results reflect a period of delivery (2008-09) during which this programme was rapidly expanded across the country, involving considerable training and support provided to the programme delivery workforce, which suggests that, once fully bedded in, this programme will produce significantly positive outcomes”.  

One of the Department’s critics, Roger Brooking, was not so sure.  In Flying Blindhow the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, Mr Brooking wrote: “This sounds like more managerial spin. The reality is that the MIRP is just another cognitive skills programme, which according to Dr Brendan Anstiss ‘have at best a modest effective on recidivism’.  In that it doesn’t treat drug and alcohol problems, it seems doubtful that it will be much more effective than the programme it replaced.”

Mr Brooking was right. The programme is now bedded in and the Department’s Annual Report for 2011  (on page 16) shows the MIRP is no more effective than the programme it replaced.   Although there is a small reduction in reoffending in the first 12 months, after two years, the reduction in the rate of imprisonment by those completing the programme is reported at 0.0%.  It has no long term benefit.

Corrections Department’s double standard

In other words, if the Government is to achieve any reduction in re-offending, it will not be achieved by the Corrections Department. Government will have to rely almost entirely on Serco which currently runs the Mt Eden prison and will soon be given the task of running the new prison at Wiri.  Making sure that Serco performs better than Corrections, the private provider will be punished by the Department if they don’t.  The NZ Herald reported:  “Serco will face stiff financial penalties if it does not meet rehabilitation targets – which will be set at 10 % lower than public prisons.”

Serco (but not Corrections) also faces penalties if prisoners escape – they had to cough up $150,000 to Corrections in February when a prisoner escaped from Mt Eden – even though two prisoners escaped from Corrections prisons on the same day. It seems there’s one rule for Corrections (we don’t have to achieve anything) and another rule for Serco (you have to do better than us).

Anyway, Serco has to reduce reoffending by ten per cent less than zero. Sounds like a walk in the park – well it will be if more prisoners escape.

How NZ encourages repeat drink driving

Obviously, not everyone who drinks and drives has a drinking problem. But many do. For someone who does have a drinking problem, poor decision-making is almost inevitable. The offender’s ability to think clearly is impaired by the continued abuse or dependence on alcohol. This impaired capacity was highlighted by a potentially amusing story reported in the NZ Herald in November, 2008. A woman in Hastings who had been drinking got into her car to drive home and on the way home, she got a flat tyre. In her inebriated state, she dropped in at the local police station to ask for help. Not surprisingly, the police smelt alcohol on her breath and she was subsequently charged with drink driving.

This case illustrates that for some drinkers, the cognitive capacity for sensible decision-making is largely non-existent. They’re drunk when they make the decision to drink and drive. However, when it comes to sentencing, judges should have no such excuse. But when it comes to addressing the underlying problem, many judges seem to make equally poor decisions. They repeatedly fail to order 95% of drink drivers to attend an assessment to find out if they have a drinking problem.

The shortage of treatment programmes 

In 2010, judges told the Law Commission they struggle to order offenders into treatment because of the shortage of treatment facilities in the community.  This argument has considerable merit. Numerous residential treatment programmes have closed in the last ten years and there are long waiting lists for those that still exist. But in some regions, courts don’t seem to be aware that funding is available from the Justice Department itself to pay for alcohol and drug assessments on these offenders. Judges in Wellington are an exception to this and utilise 80% of the $1 million put aside for these assessments.

This judicial reluctance to get offenders assessed is not confined to the rehabilitation of drink drivers. About 130,000 people are convicted in New Zealand each year for a huge variety of offences – 80% of it alcohol and drug related. However, judges order only about 5% of all offenders who appear in Court to have an AOD assessment.

Weak penalties for drink drivers in NZ

At the same time, New Zealand has some of the weakest penalties for drink driving in the western world. In Britain and Canada (and many states in the US), a 1st drink driving offence incurs a minimum disqualification period of one year. In New Zealand, the minimum is only six months for the 1st and 2nd conviction; a mandatory one year disqualification is only imposed for a 3rd offence. In Australia, a 2nd or subsequent offence incurs a minimum of three years disqualification. In Canada a 2nd offence leads to a two year disqualification. In Britain, drink drivers get three years for a 2nd offence.

Also, these other countries generally require drink drivers to attend counselling or treatment for their drinking problem before getting their drivers licence back. In New Zealand, 95% of drink drivers automatically get their driver’s licence back at the end of their period of disqualification – without even being assessed to see whether they have a drinking problem. One is inevitably led to the conclusion that the government and the  justice system have little interest in rehabilitation and little commitment to dealing with the underlying causes of offending. In fact, our system does so little to stop drink-drivers from drinking or driving that it ‘enables’ and encourages this kind of offending to continue.

14,000 prisoners on remand excluded from rehabilitation

More than 20,000 people spend time in New Zealand prisons every year and most are excluded from rehabilitation programmes. Being illiterate is one of the excluding criteria. Those on short sentences are also excluded. However, the largest cohort of prisoners prevented from attending are those on remand awaiting trial or sentencing. 14,000 New Zealanders end up in this situation every year – some for just a few weeks, others for years.

British research on remand prisoners:  There are very good reasons to start rehabilitation while offenders are on remand. British research has found that remand prisoners tend to experience very high levels of social deprivation. They are five times more likely than sentenced prisoners to have lived in a hostel prior to imprisonment and are less likely to have had a job. They also have higher levels of drug dependency.

In 2005, Britain’s Home Affairs Committee produced a report on rehabilitation issues and recommended that:

“Remand prisoners should undergo a needs assessment on reception to prison, including mandatory drug testing, and the Prison Service should develop a separate prison regime tailored to meet their specific needs. This regime should include a short induction programme, education and work opportunities and drug and alcohol treatment programmes, with arrangements in place for continuation of treatment and programmes in the community…

“Time in prison can offer a window of opportunity to start to change. These measures are especially relevant to remand and short-term prisoners, because they are more likely to be in prison for drug-motivated crimes, and treatment is more urgent because they will be released sooner”.

New Zealand research: There is little research in New Zealand on the level of drug abuse and social exclusion experienced by prisoners on remand. But the thrust of the argument made by the British Home Affairs Committee applies equally well in New Zealand. Since 80% of crime is committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the average remand prisoner is highly likely to have problems with substance abuse. They often have unstable accommodation and are sometimes remanded in prison simply because they have nowhere to live.

We even build prisons especially for them. Earlier this year, the Corrections Department spent $218 million on a brand new prison in Mt Eden with nearly 1,000 beds – just to accommodate remand prisoners in Auckland. Although it houses up to 1,000 prisoners at a time, many more will spend time there in the course of a year. Not one of them will be allowed to attend a rehabilitation programme.

Why the justice system is so ineffective

In my new book,  Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, I identify three stages in the system where intervention could occur – but generally doesn’t.

1) In Court: The first is when offenders appear in Court. Research indicates that over 80% of all offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs – but judges order alcohol and drug assessments on only 5% to 10% of all those who appear in  Court. Even with drink drivers, where the link with alcohol is obvious, the courts still order only a small percentage to be assessed, and even less to attend treatment.

2) In prison: The second stage is when offenders are sent to prison. The National government is in the process of doubling the availability of addiction treatment in prison so that 1,000 inmates a year can attend. But over 20,000 New Zealanders spend time incarcerated each year – most on short sentences. Doubling the availability of substance abuse treatment still allows only 5% of those in prison to attend. Flying Blind identifies numerous other obstacles that stand in the way of prisoners attending rehabilitation programmes.

3) On release from prison: The third stage is when prisoners are released. Many, if not most, prisoners come from dysfunctional families and have been subject of multiple trauma and adversity as they grew up. On release, they often require accommodation, a job and pro-social support if they are to avoid relapsing to alcohol and drugs and avoid re-offending.  The Corrections Department does not prioritize the reintegration of prison inmates and provides supported accommodation for less than 1% of prisoners on release – compared with 60% in Canada where re-offending rates are much lower. Flying Blind identifies this as one of the main factors contributing to New Zealand’s high rate of recidivism.

It makes the case that the lack of rehabilitation and support provided to criminals creates a vicious cycle from which it is almost impossible for a drug or alcohol addicted offender to escape – which is why the justice system is so ineffective. The final chapter of the book concludes:

“This is not a system which delivers justice. It delivers retribution and temporary containment – but very little else. It doesn’t rehabilitate and it certainly doesn’t reintegrate. It doesn’t deliver deterrence, no matter what uninformed politicians may think, and it certainly doesn’t keep the community safe. “

Only 5% of prisoners receive drug treatment

To put it politely, Corrections Minister Judith Collins is an accomplished spinner:

1) Incorrect figures:

She claims that two thirds of prisoners have problems with alcohol and drugs. But Ms Collins is misinformed. The figure of two thirds is the percentage of prisoners that, in 2008, had substance abuse treatment listed as part of their sentence plan – hardly a reliable source of information.

The reality is that sentence planners are not trained at assessing alcohol and drug dependence and the problem is much worse than the Minister claims.  The most recent independent research on the prevalence of alcohol and drug use problems among prisoners in New Zealand puts the figure between 84% and 89%.

2) The real figures:

Collins regularly claims that Government has doubled the availability of drug treatment in prison – from 500 to 1,000 places a year. It sounds impressive. But each year over 20,000 people spend time in prison – the vast majority with alcohol and drug problems. If 1,000 prisoners a year attend treatment, that’s less than 5% of the total. Doubling the availability of drug treatment in prison is not what it seems.

3) What it costs:

Ms Collins claims that doubling the number of prisoners in treatment targets one of the key drivers of crime – and that in 2009/10 Corrections spent $137.5 million on rehabilitation and reintegration. What she doesn’t say is that only $4.7 million is spent on drug treatment in prison.

Compare that with the $6 million being spent on new uniforms for prison officers (starting in September); or $11 million spent on cell phone blocking technology which doesn’t work; or $12 million to cover VIP transport arrangements for the World Rugby Cup, including use of 34 brand new BMWs recently purchased by government for the discounted price of $4.7 million – the same amount spent on drug treatment..


When there are over 20,000 offenders circulating through New Zealand prisons each year; when crime costs the country $11 billion a year – and most of it is alcohol and drug related; when recidivism is at an all time high – the $4.7 million spent on drug treatment in prison is pathetic. When the Government spends more on new uniforms and BMWs than on drug treatment, any claims by Judith Collins that reducing re-offending is a Government priority are part of Corrections’ campaign of misinformation.

To separate the spin from the facts, read Roger Brooking’s: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.

7,000 prisoners on short sentences excluded from rehabilitation

Over 7,000 people in New Zealand are sent to prison each year on ‘short sentences’ – defined by the Corrections Department as two years or less.  In fact, 80% of all those sent to prison are given short sentences – and are automatically released after serving half of their time.  Only offenders imprisoned for two years or more serve their whole sentence – unless the Parole Board releases them earlier. Ever since the Graeme Burton debacle, most of those on ‘long’ sentences now serve at least two thirds.

Because short-term prisoners not there for very long, the Corrections Department does not generally allow them to attend education, training or rehabilitation programmes. The Department’s website says: “The amount of time to be served (by those on short term sentences) is likely to severely limit the offender’s opportunities… This means it is very unlikely that these offenders will attend rehabilitative programmes while in prison.”  

The revolving prison door

Many offenders given short sentences commit ‘public nuisance’ type offending – usually under the influence of alcohol. Often they are in and out of prison again and again without attending any kind of intervention. To get into a rehabilitation programme in prison, they have to commit a more serious offence and receive a sentence of more than two years – otherwise they’re not likely to be eligible.

In other words, out of the thousands of New Zealanders sent to prison in the last 50 years, 80% have not been allowed to attend any rehabilitation programmes – because their offending was not considered serious enough. So they sit around for up to a year with virtually nothing to do – as described in the Ombudsman’s report on the treatment of prisoners in 2006.

A drop in the bucket

It may be that this short-sighted approach is beginning to change. In June 2010, a three-month alcohol and drug programme began at Otago prison targeted at short-term offenders. This will allow around 120 short-term inmates to receive treatment. In November 2010, another drug treatment unit (DTU) opened at an Auckland prison. A third DTU opened at the Wanganui prison in Septemeber 2011, enabling the number of short-term inmates eligible to receive alcohol and drug treatment to about 500 per year. That’s 500 places for 7,000 prisoners sent to prison each year on short sentences – little more than a drop in the proverbial bucket. Since the vast majority of those in prison have alcohol and drug problems, they will still miss out.

Want to know more about our crazy prison system? Get the inside story from: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.