Do you think the Sensible Sentencing Trust is sensible

In November 2011, the Sunday Star Times ran article about my new book called Flying Blind.  The story was about the need for a greater investment in rehabilitation programmes and said “Drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking suggested setting up drug courts, increasing rehabilitation programmes, and investing in halfway houses.”

The story quoted Mr Brooking as saying: “About 90% of prisoners have drug or alcohol problems, but just 5% get the treatment they need. The justice system has become a vicious cycle and it recycles all these alcohol and drug-related offenders and keeps them locked into the justice system.”

Garth McVicar took exception to this. He issued a press release in which he says rehabilitation and therapy would be “a disastrous Corrections policy.” He went to say “The fact that two thirds of prisoners have drug and alcohol problems is not the fault of Corrections or prison.”

McVicar seems to be saying that if even if alcohol or drugs have contributed to criminal behaviour, the offender should not receive any help from the Corrections Department for this. Presumably Mr McVicar thinks that if mental health problems have contributed, offenders should not receive help for that either. If illiteracy and unemployment has been a factor, Corrections still should not help. If poor parenting and a lack of family support has been a factor, well, who cares?

Mr McVicar seems to have lost all capacity for reason – let alone humanity. He doesn’t seem to realise that 98% of prisoners will eventually be released – 80% of them within six months. Not only are 90% of them dependent on alcohol and drugs, a similar percentage also struggle with reading and writing. About 60% have mental health and personality problems. If they’re not offered help with these issues, they generally relapse to drinking and drugs as soon as they get out of prison; that leads to reoffending and then back to prison.

What Mr McVicar seems to have forgotten is that when criminals reoffend, they create more and more victims. If McVicar really cared about victims, he would join forces with Roger Brooking and advocate for more therapy and rehabilitation in prison and more support for prisoners in the community. The fact that he doesn’t highlights the flaws in his thinking, the short-sightedness of his strategy and the paucity of his compassion.

The reality is that Sensible Sentencing Trust policies do not support victims – they actually create more of them. Mr McVicar should rename his Trust – because there’s really nothing sensible about it.

Should short prison sentences be abolished?

The vast majority of those given a sentence of imprisonment serve less than 12 months. There are a number of reasons for this. First, there are so many low level crimes such as burglary, car theft, minor assaults, disorderly behaviour, possession of cannabis, etc, for which prison may be prescribed but which do not warrant a significant sentence. Most of this offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Second, under New Zealand law, prisoners on short sentences – defined by the Corrections Department as two years or less – are automatically released after serving half their sentence.

What most people don’t know is that 80% of all prison sentences imposed by judges in New Zealand are for two years or less – meaning the vast majority of inmates serve less than 12 months. The problem is that very little rehabilitation is available; the Corrections Department has only recently introduced drug and alcohol treatment for those on short sentences. New Drug Treatment Units in three prisons enable about 500 short term prisoners a year to attend.

However,  there are more than 7,000 prisoners a year on short sentences – so not many will benefit. 90% of prisoners also have problems with literacy and very little assistance is available to address that either. The NZ Herald reports that Labour’s justice spokesman, Charles Chauvel, wants to eliminate jail sentences of less than six months because they are of “zero utility”.

Mr Chauvel said “abolishing short sentences, commonly used for minor offences such as drug possession and stealing cars, would free up money to help offenders with their education and addictions”.

Labour also proposes more use of police diversion for people caught possessing drugs or committing minor offences under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is the first time one of the two main parties has embraced the idea of treating the impact of substance use on offending primarily as a health issue rather than a crime.

Do prisons deter crime?

The current Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins believes prisons deter criminal offending. In a speech at the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility in October 2009, she said: “Certainly, the belief that they will be caught and punished is the greatest deterrent for criminals”.

Two years later, she continues to hold on to this erroneous perspective. When Ms Collins opened the new prison in Mt Eden in March 2011, she dismissed concerns about the new prison being so visible from the street, claiming that it acted as a deterrent to potential offenders.

Canadian research on deterrence
Ms Collins is remarkably uninformed. There is no research indicating that imprisonment deters criminal behaviour. On the contrary – the available research all points in the other direction. A Canadian study from 2001 says:

“A recent research paper from the office of the Solicitor General of Canada brings together the results of 50 studies of the deterrent effect of imprisonment involving over 300,000 offenders… Longer sentences were not associated with reduced recidivism. In fact the opposite was found. Longer sentences were associated with a 3% increase in recidivism. This finding suggests some support for the theory that prison may serve as a ‘school for crime’ for some offenders… No evidence for a crime deterrent function was found”.

New Zealand research
New Zealand’s recidivism statistics confirm the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent. Approximately 43% of all prisoners and 65% of those under 20, re-offend within a year of their release. Within five years, over half will return to prison – often more than once. For those under the age of 20, more than 70% are back inside within five years. In 2009, Arul Nadesu, principal strategic adviser for the Corrections Department, wrote:

“Analysis confirms simply that, the more time in the past someone has been in prison, the more likely they are to return to prison following any given release.” 

After three years on the job, it seems that Ms Collins has not read any research on the role of prisons in society – unlike Finance Minister, Bill English, who at least put some thought into this, and declared prisons to be a ‘fiscal and moral failure’. But even Mr English wasn’t prepared to put his money where his mouth is. The same day that he made this announcement, Corrections Department officials were in the process of making a submission to the EPA to build another 1,000 bed prison in Wiri.

Hypocrisy and incompetence
Mr English’s stance is hypocritical – he says prisons are a fiscal failure but is willing to spend an estimated $424 million building another one.  But Ms Collins’ superficial knowledge of the subject is bewildering – and surely borders on incompetence. Given her inability to acquire even a rudimentary understanding of the role of prisons, why John Key would keep her on as Minister is hard to fathom. Or is it? He and his colleagues are all part of the ‘lock ’em up brigade’ and the continuing campaign of misinformation perpetrated by the Minister.