How to cut the prison population by 50% in five years – quick fix solutions

Andrew little
Andrew Little wants to reduce the prison population by 30%

In September 2017, New Zealand’s prison population hit an all-time high of 10,470, of whom 2,983 or 28% were on remand.  The background to this boom is covered in Explaining NZ’s record high prison population.

Whatever the causes, the situation is clearly out of control. The operating cost of our prison system is about $100,000 per prisoner or $1.5 billion a year.  The National Government was planning a new prison at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. According to the new Justice Minister, Andrew Little, unless we start doing things differently, New Zealand will need to build a new prison every two or three years.

At the 2017 election, Gareth Morgan proposed reducing the prison muster by 40% over ten years. The Labour coalition wants to reduce it by 30% over 15 years. However, both Kelvin Davis, the new Corrections Minister and Andrew Little have been very vague about how they intend to achieve this. Both also seemed to think it was complicated and would take a long time.

Reducing the prison population is not difficult. The simplest approach is to repeal most of the ‘tough on crime’ legislation that has been passed in the last 25 years.  There are also some easy administrative fixes which will reduce the prison population by up to 3,000 very quickly. This article describes some of the quick fix solutions. (Also see Roger Brooking interviewed by Hilary Barry on Breakfast on this subject.)

Reduce the number of prisoners on remand

Of all the punitive legislation passed since 1980, the Bail Amendment Act in 2013 produced the biggest bump in prison numbers. This disastrous piece of legislation was introduced after the murder of Christie Marceau by 18-year-old Akshay Chand – while on bail.  However, this was not a failure of the existing bail laws.  It was the result of an inadequate risk assessment by the mental health services dealing with Chand, who was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and found unfit to stand trial. He was released after a forensic health nurse advised Judge McNaughton that Chand had been taking anti-depressant medication for two weeks and could be “safely and successfully” treated in the community.

In response to the media outrage at the murder led by Garth McVicar, National passed the Bail Amendment Act making it much tougher for defendants to be granted bail. Projections by the Ministry of Justice claimed the new Bill would increase the number of prisoners on remand by less than 60.  But three years later, there are 1,500 new prisoners on remand. None of them have yet been convicted of a crime.  They’re being held in prison because a mental health nurse, not a judge, got it wrong and because National gave in to the moral outrage perpetrated by McVicar.  As a result, the Corrections Department says we need a new prison.  We don’t. We just need to repeal the Bail Amendment Act.

Release more short-term, low risk prisoners

The other quick fix is to let out more short-term prisoners early. The Parole Act defines a short-term prison sentence as one of two years or less.  Short-term prisoners don’t go before the parole board – they’re automatically released after serving half their sentence. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 short-term inmates on a given day (although thousands more than this cycle through the prison within a 12 month period). The Board would be totally overwhelmed if it had to see all these inmates, many of whom are in prison for quite minor offences. So automatic release at the half-way mark is an administrative convenience.

Short term prisoners
Graph showing the number of short term prisons has remained constant while the number of long term prisoners continues to rise – 1980 to 2009

A long-term sentence is anything over two years (from two years up to life).  Since 1985 ‘tough on crime’ legislation has significantly increased the number of long term prisoners (see chart above); the number of people given ‘long term’ sentences between two and three years went up 475%. In 2015, there were 765 inmates in this group, out of a total of nearly 5,000 long term prisoners.

These prisoners can only be released before the end of their sentence if the Parole Board decides they no longer pose an ‘undue risk’ to the community. Most attend their first parole hearing after completing one third of their sentence. But that doesn’t mean they get out. In the last few years, the Parole Board has become increasingly risk averse and now less than 5% of inmates are released at their first hearing – after which they serve the rest of their sentence in the community under the supervision of a probation officer.  Most long-term prisoners now serve approximately 75% of their sentence. The remainder serve their entire sentence.

So if the definition of ‘short-term’ was changed from two years to three years. That would allow an additional 765 inmates to be released automatically after serving half their sentence.  Prisoners serving four or five years could be automatically released after serving two thirds.  In 2015, there were 1,645 inmates serving between two and five years. Add this to the 1,500 no longer being held on remand and within five years, the population would be down about 3,000 – which is 30% within five years.

Prisoners also need accommodation and jobs when they get out. That requires long-term solutions, which would reduce the prison population by a further 20%. These solutions are addressed in How to cut the prison population by 50% – long term solutions

Open letter to Andrew Little & Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda
Jacinda Ardern promised “to bring kindness back”.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister
Andrew Little, Minister of Justice
Parliament Buildings, Wellington

Dear Ms Ardern and Mr Little,

Your new government has taken some really positive steps in the justice arena after just a few short days in office.

Ms Ardern: On 26 October, 2017, in your first comments as Prime Minister, you said ‘I want the government … to bring kindness back’. In the Guardian newspaper read by millions  around the world, you were quoted as promising to form an “active” government that would be “focused, empathetic and strong”.

Mr Little: On your  first day on the job  as the new Minister of Justice you announced that Teina Pora’s $2.5m compensation for wrongful imprisonment would be increased to allow for inflation. That was the decent thing to do.

In the past you also voiced support for David Bain’s compensation claim. On 27 June 2013, you were quoted as saying that Ms Collins’ handling of the case had cost the taxpayer a “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, just because she’s made a mistake. And we’re all paying for it”.  You said she had acted too fast and without proper consideration of the facts, and that: “I think she’s going to be on the wrong side of this.” On 28 June you repeated your view that Justice Minister Judith Collins had “buggered it up”.

You also advocated for the establishment of an independent commission to review miscarriages of justice. On 27 October 2017, it was announced that such a body will be established under the coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First.  That’s good news – and long overdue.

But this is too late to help David Bain who, after 13 years in prison and another six years fighting for compensation, received $925,000 provided he agreed to cease all further legal action. The National Government stated that the payment was NOT compensation and Mr Bain would NOT receive an official apology. That was hardly a sympathetic response to Mr Bain’s drawn out legal battle for freedom and compensation.

Questions to Ms Ardern & Mr Little:

Given the compassionate response of the new government to Mr Teina Pora’s situation, will your government respond in a similarly empathic and active manner to Mr Bain. More specifically, is your new government willing to:

  • Advise Mr Bain that the payment he received is, in fact, compensation for the 13 years he spent in prison?
  • Increase the amount of compensation he received so it is in line with Cabinet guidelines of $100,000 per year spent in prison? This should take his payment from $925,000 to about $1.3 million.
  • Adjust the $1.3 million for inflation in line with the courageous Teina Pora decision?
  • Offer Mr Bain an official apology for the egregious mistakes made by the New Zealand police (as identified by Justice Ian Binnie and ignored by Justice Ian Callinan) which contributed to his imprisonment.

Yours faithfully

Roger Brooking
P.O. Box 29-075, Ngaio, Wellington

An unlikely conversation between Gareth Morgan and Garth McVicar

CartoonOne TOP party policy that hasn’t received much attention in the run up to the election is Gareth Morgan’s wish to reduce the prison population. He argues that rather than rehabilitating inmates, “prisons nurture crime”.

The Corrections Department’s own figures confirm the fundamental ineffectiveness of their rehabilitation programmes. This means that prisons don’t keep us safe either because these unrehabilitated prisoners are almost all released eventually. And prisons are incredibly expensive chewing up billions of hard earned taxpayer dollars that you could be used to fund more teachers, doctors, social workers and infrastructure.

Morgan: Garth we need to reduce the prison population by 50%. We need the money that Corrections spends on locking up prison inmates for other things like housing the homeless, treating drug addiction and improving mental health services in the community

McVicar: No, you’ve got it all wrong, Gareth. That’s what the prisons are for – to provide shelter for the homeless and take care of people with addictions and mental health problems. We need to put more of these losers in prison and get them off the streets.

Morgan: Yeah but that doesn’t solve the problem, does it? These guys don’t get any help in prison and eventually they get released on parole or at the end of their sentence. So, at the end of the day we’re no better off.

McVicar: That’s easily fixed Gareth. First, we need to abolish parole so these scum serve their whole sentence. We have to stop letting them out early. Second, we need to impose much longer sentences so hopefully these crims just die in prison. After all, life should mean life – not three years then out on parole after one year.

Morgan: But only 0.01% of prisoners have killed someone, you know, committed murder.  We can’t lock up robbers, shoplifters, drug addicts and drink drivers for life. Sentencing has to be proportionate – you know what I mean – the punishment should fit the crime. And they need help with their addictions.

McVicar: That left-wing claptrap is all well and good – but we have to lock these crims up for a long time to deter other people from drinking and stealing our stuff – otherwise everyone will be doing it.

Gareth
“Prison isn’t the solution to crime”

Morgan: But the academics say that this so-called theory of deterrence doesn’t really work – because most crims are mentally ill, brain damaged or addicted to alcohol or crack. They mostly commit crimes when they’re high as kites or drunk as skunks or to feed their addiction and the possibility of going to prison doesn’t even dawn on them.

McVicar: Don’t talk to me about academics. They’re the ones that got us into this mess by claiming that crime is the result of childhood abuse and dysfunctional parenting. It’s got nothing to do with parenting. My parents beat the crap out of me and look how I turned out. I don’t need an academic to tell me right from wrong. Crime is a personal choice made by people with no moral fibre.  Bugger this namby pamby approach, we need to use more corporal punishment on our children – that’s what turns them into real men.

Morgan: But it’s not just men Garth. There’s more and more women going to prison now as well. The vast majority of them have been sexually abused as children and because they’re psychologically damaged, they team up with abusive partners who beat the crap out of them.

McVicar: Well if you choose an abusive partner, you’re deliberately choosing to get beaten up. So, getting beaten up is a personal choice – just like crime. We have to take responsibility for our lives and stop blaming everyone else for our problems. The middle-class intellectuals have been coddling crims for way too long.

Morgan: But we can’t keep locking up more and more people Garth. Prisons are expensive. The prison population is at an all-time high. We’ve got 10,000 inmates. It costs $100,000 a year to lock up just one inmate and National wants to build another prison. When’s it going to stop?

McVicar: It’ll stop when the perverts are all locked up and the streets are safe to live in again…

Morgan: What do you mean? New Zealand is the second safest country in the world.

McVicar: That’s what I’m saying – locking up the bad guys is the only thing that works. Prisons create peace and harmony in society.

Morgan: (after a long pause with a look of bewilderment on his face) Yeah right!

‘Black hands’ – Stuff & van Beynen making money out of murder

Van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

Martin Van Beynen is a columnist for the The Press in Christchurch. He’s followed the David Bain case from the beginning and is clearly obsessed with it.  Right from the start, he was convinced David was the murderer. Twenty years later, despite the Privy Council declaration that there was a miscarriage of justice and the finding of the second jury that David was not guilty,  Van Beynen has been unable to accept reality.  And the reality is – he got it wrong.

But there’s money to be made. So in July 2017, Stuff released a 10 part podcast Van Beynen put together about the case: Why the David Bain story needed to be told one more time.  Van Beynen examines the evidence in detail – in minute detail. In the process, he loses all perspective. He’s so busy looking at the individual trees, he fails to see the forest – or that half of it is missing because of the well-documented incompetence of the Dunedin police.

Let’s not forget that during their investigation, the police allowed some crucial trees to be burnt down (eg: the house where the murders took place).   And those incest allegations against Robin Bain were fertile soil in which the trees of the forest were growing  – but the police threw them out as seedlings before they even got planted.  So Van Beynen only examines the decrepit, well worn trees that are still standing. He  only sees what he wants to see – just like the police, who at the time of the crime, turned a blind eye towards the allegations of incest.

Using these myopic methods, Van Beynen still thinks David was the murderer.  So do the police of course. One has to wonder – after all these years, why Van Beynen can’t admit he got it wrong? He has a reputation for solid investigative journalism. So why is he still in denial about the Bain case? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he has a brother who works for the police – the same police who destroyed half the trees in the forest.  Or perhaps its because Van Beynen works for Stuff, and this is an opportunity for them to take his obsession with the case and make more money off it.

Bill English admits his Government is a moral & fiscal failure

bill-2
Prisons are a moral and fiscal failure

In 2011, Bill English claimed that prisons were “a moral and fiscal failure” and New Zealand should never build another one. Well said – and achievable – but only if Governments stop pandering to the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust and the moral panic manufactured by the media whenever a violent crime occurs.

Later that year, the Government set the Corrections Department a goal – to reduce reoffending by 25% (by 2017).  Perhaps Mr English thought that if reoffending declined, so would the prison population – or at least it wouldn’t go up.

In October this year, Mr English and the Government had to admit total defeat on both counts. Reoffending has been reduced a little (by about 8%) – but only in the first 12 months after completion of a rehabilitation programme.  After that, the reoffending rate is back to normal – which means 52% of prisoners return to prison within five years. The long-term reoffending rate has not changed in years.

In the meantime, the prison population has hit an all-time high and the government says it is going to build yet another prison. This increase in prison capacity is going to cost you and me, the taxpayer, an additional $1 billion. Imagine what the education sector could do with another billion dollars – more teachers, better pay, smaller class sizes, with staff satisfaction and retention improved. Imagine what the health sector could do with another billion dollars – reduced waiting lists, better access to mental health care and addiction treatment, better support for those on low incomes and a reduction in New Zealand’s escalating poverty statistics – all of which would likely lead to less crime.

We have to provide the capacity – yeah right!

Announcing his Government’s moral and fiscal failure, Finance Minister Bill English contradicted his 2011 statement about no more prisons saying: “This is something that has to be done. We have to provide the capacity.”

Phil Goff.jpgNo – we don’t. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this increase in our prison population.  It is entirely the result of penal policies passed by both Labour and National governments in the last few years – policies which have been getting more and more draconian. In a press release in 2002, Tougher laws driving up prison population, Justice Minister Phil Goff said tougher sentencing and parole laws enacted by the Labour government would increase the prison population by over 20% in the next seven years.

This year Judith Collins said the continuing increase was due to tougher laws passed by National. She said criminals are getting longer sentences but that the muster blowout since 2014 has mostly been driven by a 40% increase in the number of prisoners on remand. That blowout stems from changes to the Bail, Sentencing and Victim’s Rights Acts.

There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this. Prof John Pratt of Victoria University would say it is entirely due to political populism – whereby politicians follow the dubious wisdom of victims groups and the media instead of taking advice from criminologists and justice sector experts.

How Finland cut its prison population

Finland is an example of what can happen when politicians listen to academics. In 2006 in Little done to break cycle of offending, Simon Collins wrote:

“Finland has cut its imprisonment rate by two-thirds in the past 50 years, with no apparent effect on the crime rate.”

He quotes Tapio Lappi-Seppala of the Finnish Institute of Legal Policy who said Finnish judges, lawyers and politicians were ashamed of their high rate of imprisonment compared with other Nordic countries which had quite low rates.

In the 1960s, on their own initiative, judges in Finland started imposing shorter sentences on a variety of offenders. In the 1970s, politicians backed up the judges with two key law changes: imprisonment for theft and drink driving were abolished and replaced by fines and ‘conditional imprisonment’ – offenders stayed out of jail as long as they did not reoffend. Then in 1994, a new sentence of community service was introduced to replace short jail terms.

The result was a dramatic drop in the rate of imprisonment from 195 down to 66 inmates per 100,000 of the population. This proves it can be done. During this same period (1960 to now) New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment has gone up and up. In 2016, it topped 200 people per 100,000 – four times higher than Finland’s. This puts us on a par with Mexico (204) and way above Australia (152), the United Kingdom (146), China (118) and Canada (114). Altogether New Zealand locks up more people per head of population than 150 other countries.

Liam Martin
Dr Liam Martin: “Its time to start making different choices.”

Attempts have even been made in New Zealand to turn this around. In Lessons from youth justice for our prison policy, VUW criminology lecturer Dr Liam Martin notes:

“It’s time to start making different choices. Our history of youth justice is a reminder we have changed paths before: in less than a decade between 1988 and 1996, we cut the number of children in state institutions from 2000 to fewer than 100.”

If we can reduce the number of children in state institutions (and the number of psychiatric patients in state care), surely we reduce the number of adults in our prison system. Spending $1 billion to increase prison capacity is an irresponsible and appalling waste of taxpayers’ money. It would be much better spent in the education and health sectors – where it would actually contribute to reduced offending.

Rise in reoffence rates ‘puzzling’ – especially to Judith Collins

Collins

According to this New Zealand Herald story, Rise in reoffence rates ‘puzzling’, the Corrections Department has told Judith Collins it is struggling to understand why reoffending continues to rise in New Zealand.

The background is that in 2011 the Government set Corrections a target – to reduce reoffending by 25% by 2017. In 2014, the Department claimed it had achieved a 12% reduction and was halfway to its target. Its progress has now fallen to 8%. The Herald says:

Corrections officials said the reversal of progress towards the target was “puzzling” because rehabilitation programmes had been producing “excellent” results… “

This is simply not true. In fact it is a blatant lie, contradicted by a statement in Appendix Two of the Department’s 2015 annual report (p 134) where it admits:

“The rates of some programmes reported are small and below the level of statistical significance…”

The reality is that eleven of the twelve rehabilitation programmes run by Corrections are producing small, statistically insignificant, results.

Corrections officials in denial

One of the basic tenets of rehabilitation involves learning to take responsibility for one’s mistakes; this requires some degree of insight and personal honesty. It is ironic that Ray Smith and his management team expect criminals to front up and take responsibility for their behaviour when he and his team are not capable of it. They are lying to the Minister and to the public.

Not surprisingly, Judith Collins has swallowed what Ray Smith and his officials are telling her hook, line and sinker. Collins said there were a number of reasons why progress had slowed…

“In particular, Corrections was now dealing with a more challenging group of offenders. This was a result of police increasingly diverting less serious cases out of the justice system. Corrections had been left with fewer first-time and low-risk criminals, and a larger proportion of people who were more likely to reoffend.”

This is also not true. The Department has always focused its rehabilitation programmes on high-risk offenders who are more likely to offend. It is only in the last few years that first-time offenders and low-risk criminals have even become eligible to attend these programmes – allowing Collins to claim that the number of offenders engaged in rehabilitation programmes is now at a three-year high. So is the prison population which, in November last year, reached an all-time high of 9171 inmates.

The fact that these rehabilitation programmes are not working should come as no surprise. Virtually the same story hit the headlines in 2006  when Corrections revealed that the Straight Thinking programme actually increased the likelihood of reoffending instead of reducing it. Simon Power was the Opposition spokesman for Corrections at the time; for months on end, he kept calling for an inquiry into the way Corrections was being run.

As a result of all the publicity, Corrections scrapped most of its programmes and designed brand new ones. One of those is called the Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme or MIRP.  I predicted this would make no difference in a blog in March 2012 – see The MIRP doesn’t work.  Four years later, the Department’s Annual Report shows that none of these new programmes are working.

The two broken legs analogy

one broken.jpgThe reason is obvious. Those who end up in prison tend to come from backgrounds of deprivation and abuse, and suffer from mental health problems and addictions. A useful analogy is that are emotionally and socially crippled – the psychological equivalent of having two broken legs. Rehabilitation in prison is akin to placing a plaster cast on one leg. The other leg only gets a plaster cast when the prisoner is released – in the process of reintegration.

Unfortunately, the Corrections Department doesn’t have a reintegration service. It spends $160 million a year on rehabilitation programmes but only $10 million on reintegration services – which are farmed out to non-governmental organisations. The reintegration of prisoners is generally left in the hands of volunteers.

The reality is that placing a plaster cast on one broken leg when both of them are broken is not going to help. The prisoner still can’t stand up, let alone walk on the straight and narrow path that society expects. Given the lack of resources put into reintegration, it is no wonder that the Department’s rehabilitation programmes don’t work and prisoners continue to reoffend. What is really strange is that Ray Smith and Judith Collins find this puzzling – when, in fact, it’s totally predictable.

Don’t get sick in the Otago prison – cause no one gives a shit

Being sent to prison in Otago is hazardous to your health. If you get sick, you may well die because you won’t get much help from the prison nurses or doctors.

In 2010, Richard Barriball committed suicide in the Otago prison after he was unable to access the painkilling medication he had been receiving in the community for an injury to his arm. The coroner, David Crerar, criticised Corrections for providing Mr Barriball with ‘sub optimal treatment’.

In 2011, Jai Davis died when prison nurses refused to call a doctor even though Mr Davis was admitted to the prison with internally concealed drugs (codeine and benzodiazepines).  Davis was responsible for swallowing the drugs, but David Crerar was critical that half a dozen nurses on duty that weekend ignored his deteriorating condition and none of them called the doctor.

CuttanceThe same coroner has just revealed that in 2012 Boyd Cuttance spent 48 days in Otago prison. He developed an invasive fungal infection in the brain and sought help for severe headaches 30 times during those 48 days. He was only transferred to hospital after his mother who happens to be a nurse went to see him, discovered he was ‘extremely unwell’ and demanded he be sent to hospital. He died two months later.

The coroner, Mr David Crerar, cleared Dunedin Hospital staff of any wrongdoing but found prison management, doctors and nurses were totally wrong in thinking the actions they had taken constituted ”appropriate health care”.  All they did was take a blood test and give him some panadol. Mr Crerar said Mr Cuttance’s symptoms ought to have indicated to an experienced nurse or GP that something was seriously wrong with him.

Today, the Otago daily Times reports that yet another prisoner has committed suicide in the Otago prison. It will be interesting to see what involvement he had with the prison health service before he decided to take his own life. Given the speed at which the coroner works, it’ll be another three years before we know the answer to that.

But the real question is how many more people have to die before David Crerar gets sick of molly-coddling Corrections and demands an official inquiry into the Otago prison health service. If he doesn’t, the Health & Disability Commissioner or the Ombudsman certainly should. But that’s not going to happen is it. Why? Because they’re prisoners, not human beings, and no one gives a shit. Except their families.