Corrections should get rid of all 2,500 volunteers

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

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

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

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

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

Who you gonna call?

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

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

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

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

Rubbish bagPicking up the trash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Corrections re-victimises the victims – Susan Couch’s story

On December 11, 2011 the NZ Herald reported that the families of those killed by Wililam Bell gathered to remember those they lost in the Panmure RSA ten years ago. Bell killed three people at the RSA and seriously injured another – Susan Couch.

In 2001, Ms Couch was working part time doing the club’s accounts. She survived Bell’s attack – but only just. Both her arms were broken; she received severe head injuries and lost about 80 per cent of her blood. Ambulance officers said she came as close to dying as she could get. She spent six months in Middlemore Hospital, followed by years of rehabilitation.

Permanent damage

The legacy of Bell’s assault on Ms Couch is still visible. The head injuries subsequently led to a stroke and permanent brain damage. She has no function in her left arm and can’t even wash the dishes. Her left leg is disabled and she walks with a stick.  She also has paralysed vocal chords which impact on her speech.  She was unable to get ACC for lost earnings or a lump sum payment because, shortly before the attack, she’d had to give up work to look after her young son. All she received from ACC was $60 a week.

Ms Couch brought a claim in the High Court seeking exemplary damages from the Corrections Department for failing to exercise “reasonable care” in Bell’s parole supervision. The Court of Appeal struck out the High Court action, saying her negligence claim could not succeed because the probation service owed her no duty of care. That was overturned by the Supreme Court last year when it gave her the go-ahead to sue the department.

But her quest for justice will need to show the Department had “consciously appreciated the risk” that releasing Bell on parole posed to her safety and that it “proceeded deliberately and outrageously to run that risk”. Ms Couch’s lawyer, Brian Henry, said she had “no illusions” that she had a difficult legal battle ahead but vowed he would show Corrections had deliberately contributed to the outcome.

So far legal proceedings have taken ten years and Ms Couch has still not had her day in Court. The hearing is finally expected to take place sometime this year.

How the Department failed Susan Couch

William Bell was in prison for 3½ years before he attacked Susan Couch and the three others he killed at the RSA. The Corrections Department failed to provide Bell with addiction treatment and psychological support in prison, and failed to monitor his release on parole.  In this respect, the Department has contributed to his on-going drug addiction which subsequently led to his rampage at the RSA.

Section 5 of the Corrections Act of 2004 says “The purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society.”

In regard to Susan Couch, the Department failed miserably on both counts – it didn’t do anything with Bell that would improve public safety and certainly didn’t provide Susan Couch or society with justice.  All she wants is $500,000.  For God’s sake,  give her the money – and an apology.

Prisons improve public safety – yeah right!

In September, Simon Power announced he wanted to toughen up the bail laws and make it harder for offenders to be granted bail when appearing in Court. He says his proposals will improve public safety. Similar claims were made about the draconian ‘three strikes’ legislation passed by Parliament last year which imposed harsher sentences on repeat offenders.

New Zealand can afford it – no we can’t!

These ‘tough on crime’ laws achieve two very dubious outcomes. The first is they increase the number of people in prison – which imposes a huge burden on the taxpayer. New Zealand already has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the West – exceeded only by the United States. But building new prisons is an expensive strategy. The last Labour Government built four of them at a cost of over $1 billion. The National Government has already built one new prison at Mt Eden for $216 million and is planning yet another at Wiri at twice that cost – even though the lastest justice sector forecasts show we don’t need another prison.

This is a massive waste of money.  Altogether, police, courts and prisons cost the taxpayer about $5 billion a year – the same as the cost of just one Christchurch earthquake – except that this earthquake of crime happens year, after year, after year. When New Zealand is facing the biggest deficit in its history, tough on crime strategies have created a financial black hole from which New Zealand gets very little in return.

Violent crime is on the rise – no it’s not!

The second outcome of tough on crime laws is that they pander to public perceptions (assumptions) that crime is out of control and putting offenders in prison improves public safety. Let’s examine these assumptions.

There is little doubt that the public believes violent crime is on the rise. 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. The latest figures for 2010 show a further drop in the crime rate. Police spokesman Kevin Kelly said crime had been dropping in New Zealand since 1997.

In other words, despite all the evidence to the contrary, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. The media’s sensational reporting of crime and years of pandering to Garth McVicar are largely responsible for these distorted perceptions.

Prisons improve public safety – no they don’t!

This is all very strange – as from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace – out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 indicators including corruption, violence, crime rates, military spending and access to primary education. Other countries in the top ten include Iceland, Japan, Austria and all five Scandinavian countries.

In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations (out of 169 countries) in terms of ‘human development’ – defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’ based on information about life expectancy, schooling, income and a number of other factors.

The UN report also assessed global perceptions of crime and safety. 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 with high levels of human development, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). We’re 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%).

There’s something wrong here. In the United States, where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe. In other words, public perceptions of safety in New Zealand are seriously out of touch with reality. What this means is that the man responsible for passing these ‘tough on crime’ laws – that’s Justice Minister Simon Power – is also out of touch. To put it another way, he’s so driven by political populism, he’s become incapable of objective analysis?

The truth is that Mr Power has a well deserved reputation for knee-jerk responses and ignoring research and evidenced-based reports. The President of the New Zealand Law Society, Jonathan Temm, has been so concerned about what’s happening under Mr Power’s watch that he’s called for a national debate on the criminal justice system

New Zealand a ‘penal curiosity’ – ‘what not to do’!

Given the anti-intellectual manner in which justice and penal policy is currently formulated in this country, perhaps it should be no surprise that the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College in London views New Zealand as a ‘penal curiosity’ – and uses our prison policies as an example of what ‘not to do’.

Being smart on crime is tough

Last week, TV reviewer Gordon Brown wrote an extraordinary opinion piece in the Taranaki Daily News  titled Make the criminals pay. He expressed his disagreement with arguments put forward in my critical expose of the New Zealand justice system: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.  The thrust of Flying Blind is that 80% of all crime in New Zealand occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs; and that the best way to reduce reoffending is to provide more intervention in the community rather than locking people up and trying to rehabilitate them in prison at twenty times the cost.

Mr Brown on the other hand claims that “ordinary New Zealanders want to feel safe and the only way for that to happen is to resource the police so they can do the job properly.” He also wants to impose tougher sentences on those who end up in prison.

Community safety

If Mr Brown had bothered to read Flying Blind, he might have picked up on a few facts about community safety. First, crime has been on the decline since the 1990s and the murder rate has halved over this period. The projected need for prison beds has also begun to decline for the first time in 50 years.

Second, for the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the global peace index out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 different indicators including crime rates, violence, corruption, military spending, etc. In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations in terms of human development.

Third, perceptions of community safety have more to do with the media than they do with the police. A study from 2002 into the role of the media’s coverage of crime reported: “the selective and disproportionate media coverage of crime, particularly violence, when set alongside actual police statistics, raises questions of skewed reporting in New Zealand at a time when crime rates are falling.”

Distorted perceptions of safety

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. Between 2006 and 2009 international surveys found that only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’. This puts us on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon (where 56% feel safe), Iran (55%) and former Communist states like Albania (54%). In the United States where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe.

What this suggests is that we don’t need more police to improve public safety. What we need is more honest journalism and less scaremongering by the likes of Garth McVicar, right wing politicians and commentators like Gordon Brown – who claims to represent the silent majority. Unfortunately, the so-called silent majority has not been silent at all. They’ve been very vocal; this uninformed, lock ‘em up brigade has dominated public debate about justice issues for the last 20 years – leading to a populist competition between National and Labour to be tough on crime.

Where has this competition to be tough on crime got us? The answer is – into a financial black hole. The last Labour Government built four new prisons. National has already built one new prison and is planning another. Justice Sector costs are estimated at around $5 billion a year. This is equivalent to the cost of one decent sized earthquake in Christchurch – but it’s not a one off. Criminal liquefaction shakes the foundations of society year, after year, after year. Mr Brown wants to ‘make the criminals pay’. But this $5 billion cost is imposed on the New Zealand taxpayer – not the criminals.

One has to wonder why people like Garth McVicar and Gordon Brown are so keen to drive the New Zealand justice system into this financial black hole. The answer to that question was provided in Mr Brown’s opinion piece. He wrote: “We (just) don’t care”.  The fact that so many New Zealanders don’t seem to care is why the justice system is Flying Blind.