Why Bill English booted Collins off Corrections

The Corrections Department in New Zealand puts out a monthly magazine called, guess what – Corrections Works. This pithy little propaganda sheet provides a pat on the back to any Corrections staff who perform up to expectations or do anything reasonably well in the previous month. The magazine also contains a monthly Message from the Minister, in which, just before Bill English gave her the push, Collins confesses that under her control, Corrections hasn’t been working at all.

For years, the Crusher has consistently claimed the Department is “extremely focused on reducing reoffending” but in Corrections Works, she reveals – with great embarrassment – that:

rehab“The target of reducing reoffending by 25% by 2017 was a laudable aim… (but) progress is slow, the reoffending rate has dropped by (only) 5.6%.” 

Of course, no one at Corrections reveals that the figure of 5.6% only applies to the first 12 months after release from prison. Beyond that there is no reduction whatsoever and 50% of inmates are back inside within five years.  So this is Collins’ most fundamental failure – making bold claims about reducing reoffending – but not being able to perform.

Collins is also responsible for the overcrowding crisis in our prison system which has contributed to these poor results. There are now over 10,000 Kiwis locked up – an all-time high. This mass incarceration is almost entirely due to the raft of ‘tough on crime’ Bills introduced by Judith as Minister of Justice from 2011 to 2014.  She pandered to ACT by passing the three strikes law; made sweeping changes to bail laws making it much harder for defendants to get bail; and raised the bar for prisoners seeking parole so they end up serving more time in prison and struggle to reintegrate afterwards.

Although all categories of prisoners are up, the biggest increase has been in the number held on remand – Kiwis that have not yet been found guilty of the crimes with which they are charged.

collins3These policy changes have put the prison system under enormous pressure. This pressure cooker has had the biggest impact on Mt Eden prison where most remand prisoners are held.

There is also no getting away from the fact that Collins was the Minister in charge of Corrections when Mt Eden was contracted out to Serco, a private British company with a well-established track record of failure. We all know how that turned out. Poor old Sam Lotu-Iiga carried the can for the fight club debacle, but there is no doubt he was set up to fail by Collins. As The Spinoff argues in this excellent analysis of Judith Collins’ many failures:

moj “It is the Minister of Justice who sets the agenda and the policies for the justice system. Corrections just wipes up the mess that follows.”

Before Bill English gave her the boot as Corrections Minister, Judith got to announce one more massive mistake which is likely to have a detrimental impact for years to come.  Displaying her punitive personality for all to see, she proclaimed (in Corrections Works) she “was pleased to announce that the government has approved plans to increase prison capacity by 1800 beds” and that the Government was going to spend (in reality waste) $2.5 billion of the taxpayers’ money doing so. Collins was pleased because she continues to believe that prison deters criminal offending – and has never bothered to read the criminology research which overwhelmingly shows that prison acts more like a university for crime than a deterrent.


Bill English, on the other hand, believes that early intervention and targeting dysfunctional or struggling families is the best way to help at-risk kids before they become the next generation of prisoners. He quotes research which shows that on average, children brought up in at risk environments will cost the state $270,000 over their lifetime compared with just $33,000 for those who are fortunate enough to be born into pro-social environments which are relatively risk free.

Bill has the support of the new Justice Minister Amy Adams who says the Government doesn’t have “vast amounts of money to throw at new things”, but was going to look at social and mental health interventions with at risk families to see if they would make a difference.

Ironically, the reason the Government doesn’t have vast amounts of money to address the drivers of crime is because they keep spending it on new prisons. And this is why Bill had to fire Judith. Using her roles as Justice and Corrections Minister, Collins has been taking the country in a direction that Bill clearly doesn’t want to go.

So does this mean that as Prime Minister, Mr English is now going to cancel the new prison and put the $2.5 billion into social justice investment? Not bloody likely. Not unless he wants to lose the next election as badly as he did in 2002. For Government, holding onto power is always more important than implementing evidence based policy that might actually make a difference.

scapegoatThere is a cheaper option. The government could simply repeal Judith’s Bail Amendment Act and reduce the prison population overnight. That would save $2.5 billion at the stroke of a pen.

What are the chances of that happening? None whatsoever.

That would be an admission of failure. For politicians, sticking to your guns – even when you know you’re heading in the wrong direction – seems to be far more important than admitting you made a mistake. It’s much easier to find a scapegoat and blame it all on him, or her. Who fits the Bill? Judith Collins, of course.

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.”

Sensible sentencing leads to reduction in prison population

There are two groups of people in prison – those who have been sentenced and those on remand waiting to be sentenced.  Over the last ten years, the number of sentenced prisoners increased by 34% but there has been a massive increase – of 116% – in the number of offenders being sent to prison on remand.

The use of remand is so out of control that over 14,000 people are now remanded each year – which puts enormous pressure on the need for prison beds. In response, the Corrections Department has built  a new prison for those on remand in Mt Eden and is planning to build another prison at Wiri.

But for the first time ever, this year’s justice sector forecasts predict a 6.2% decrease in the prison population over the next 10 years. The sentenced population is forecast to fall by 6% and the remand population by 7%. But the fall may even be greater than this – one scenario in the forecast suggests the remand population could fall by as much as 23%.

Cause of the decline

Those claiming that the reduction in prison population is due to better policing or reduced crime have not understood (and have misinterpreted) the data upon which prison projections are made. The turnaround in remand figures actually began in 2007 after the Sentencing Amendment Act came into effect. The Act introduced two new non-custodial sentences – community detention and intensive supervision. It also introduced home detention as an immediate, community-based sentence. Previously, offenders given home detention had to go to prison first – and then apply for home detention from there.

As a result of these changes, from 2008 onwards the number of offenders given home detention and community based sentences has gone up dramatically – by between 40% and 50%. It has taken three years for this to impact on the prison projections and for the trend to become apparent.

Conclusion – sensible sentencing

In other words, the projected drop in the prison population has very little to do with reductions in the crime rate, better policing or socio-economic factors. It’s almost entirely due to the  legislation passed in 2007 which gave judges more community-based sentencing options. Because of the decline, Prime Minister John Key said we may not need to build the new prison – estimated to cost $424 million.  When New Zealand is facing the biggest deficit in its history, and every prisoner costs the taxpayer over $90,000 a year, this puts new meaning into the term ‘sensible sentencing’.

A reduction in the prison population would be a positive step. But the 14,000 inmates on remand are still not allowed to attend any rehabilitation programmes in prison. And there is still very little support in the community for inmates coming out of prison. Most relapse to alcohol and drug use and eventually re-offend. Fundamentally, the system is still Flying Blind.