Is the prison system working? – Sir Peter Gluckman Chief Science Advisor


Is the prison system working? Report suggests an evidence-informed approach would improve outcomes

The Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor has released a report entitled “Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs.”

The report’s lead author is Associate Professor Ian Lambie, Science Advisor to the Justice sector and a highly experienced clinical psychologist. Dr Lambie was assisted by Sir Peter Gluckman and the other social sector science advisors.

The report comes at a time when the New Zealand prison population is one of the highest in the OECD and continues to increase, yet our crime rates are actually decreasing.

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Prison costs in New Zealand have risen over the past 30 years and particularly in the last 12 years at a rate that far exceeds of any other component of government expenditure. This is not due to an increasing crime rate but rather because of successive policies that have been implemented so as to be seen to be “tough on crime”.

Crime, especially violent crime, hurts individuals and society. Both direct and indirect victims of crime may suffer untold consequences that can endure for years and can even affect next generations. Those who do not suffer personally may nonetheless acquire negative perceptions of people or places because of criminal activity, and potentially have undue influence on the system. The net effect of such perceptions can change societal attitudes creating a more negative environment and potentially have undue influence on the system.

Yet, evidence suggests that we are not making potential victims safer by responding in a blunt and an overly punitive manner. To reduce crime, a better justice system requires evidence-based, costeffective approaches to prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation, not just imprisonment.

The key findings of the report are:

• The New Zealand prison population is increasing and is one of the highest in the OECD at a time when our crime rates are actually decreasing. This appears to result primarily from the cumulative impact of successive policy decisions to be tougher on crime over time. This has reflected a progressively retributive rather than a restorative approach to crime.

• Other countries have significantly reduced their incarceration rates without crime rates rising.

• This does not diminish the importance of incarceration for a subset of individuals so as to protect the public. Yet, the costs of prisons far exceed those justified by that protection. It seems we keep imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data, instead of evidencebased approaches to prevention, intervention, imprisonment and rehabilitation.

• The evidence base points to prisons as training grounds for further offending, building offenders’ criminal careers by teaching them criminal skills, damaging their employment, accommodation and family prospects, and compounding any mental health and substance use issues. It is now well understood that prisons act as recruitment centres for gangs (especially for young offenders) and underpin the illegal drug trade. On release, even after a short period of imprisonment, offenders have been found to reintegrate poorly to the community.

• Imprisonment can leave those incarcerated with high rates of undiagnosed and untreated alcohol/drug addictions and mental illness. These often have a negative impact on the next generation, given that a high percentage of people in prison are parents. These issues disproportionately affect the Māori community.

• There is strong scientific evidence for shifting the focus of attention into crime prevention, early intervention (identifying and mitigating risk), and a smarter approach to rehabilitation and subsequent social inclusion for those already in the criminal justice system. Prisons are a necessary, but limited, component of a more proactive and effective systemic response to a complex problem.

: DSA_Justice_Paper_final.pdf


  1. Great that the PM’s science advisors have rediscovered the truth that jailing people is a way of criminalising them. But they don’t ask why waste money on jailing people instead of rehab into useful wage work?
    Answer: capitalism creates a reserve army of surplus workers to drive down wages. But for that to work workers have to work, not steal or riot or even worse plot to overthrow private property.
    In fact it was Marx who first (to my knowledge) suggested that capitalism needed to create criminals and lock them up so as to protect the moral superiority of a owners of private property who exploit, oppress and destroy the lives of workers. A useful by-product was the creation of a legal system that created hordes of cops, lawyers and jailers devoted to keeping ‘social order’ – a euphemism for class exploitation. And privatisation of course profits from the perpetuation of prisons.
    So good luck PM’s scientists in stopping Labour building yet more jails.

  2. “Prison costs in New Zealand have risen over the past 30 years and particularly in the last 12 years at a rate that far exceeds of any other component of government expenditure.”

    Funny that is when Dr Gluckman has been the science advisor for the dirtyest Government in our history for the last nine years and allowing our rivers to become so toxic that the government is now warning most are at times un-swimmable and our water is not safe to drink without putting chemicals in their drinking water such as Chlorine and fluoride

    Well done Dr Gluckman so here is the door and you are fired (we hope)

    • If you go back to the advice on various subjects, including climate change and dirty rivers, given by Dr. Gluckman, you might find, that you find yourself very much in agreement. That governments ignore said advice is a different matter. Who knows what the current government will do with this report. If there are votes to be had with a strong “law and order” stance, not much I suggest.

  3. Was shocked at how incompetent and unjust the justice system was when recently was talking to someone who helped a person who had got into trouble. The first thing was that even though the persons crimes seemed fairly minor and did not involve physical harm to a person the person was put in jail for days and told they would be held on remand unless they pleaded guilty.

    They pleaded guilty to get out of jail. The next bizarre incident was that the record they were using appeared to be someone else’s with a substantial criminal record which was not the person’s. This did not come to light and was probably not going to be picked up but was probably only because a whole lot of people started taking interest in the case. Apparently it’s a common occurrence that the records are mixed up. Unbelievable!

    When held on parole the person was told they had breached because the parole officers went to the wrong house and that was not true.

    When sentencing the person noticed that another person who was charged at the same time as them but with a different crime was still awaiting sentencing in Jail. That person was a teenager and it seemed incredible they were held in jail for months when they had not been convicted and they were so young! Apparently he was very frightened to be held in jail. My guess is if you don’t plead guilty straight away, this is now used to hold people in jail.

    Seriously just hearing about a little taste has left me knowing something is VERY wrong and unjust in our ‘justice’ system.

    The sad part is, that being in jail or getting a criminal conviction follows someone around for the rest of their lives and it seems like they are being handed out cart blanche in our justice system and for crimes blown out of proportion to not very worldly people being pushed into pleading guilty, not much effort seems to be given in getting the information right about previous offending, the parole system is incompetent and teenagers who have not been convicted are being held for months in jail.

    No wonder our prison rate is going up while our crime rate is static.

  4. A few facts to clarify the situation:

    The overall crime rate is dropping but the number of youth who exhibit persistent, chronic, violent offending is increasing.

    Prisons warehouse dangerous people. Nothing more and nothing less.

    The idea is that whilst they’re inside they’re doing no damage outside. (mostly true but not always)

    For the vast majority this is not their first rodeo. They have multiple convictions, plus a sealed youth offenders file.

    You don’t get locked up for smoking a spliff. The courts are putting ankle bracelets even on violent offenders. To get locked up you’ve got to have done some serious shit.

    There is essentially no rehabilitation. For two reasons: Firstly many are well beyond redemption and secondly the techniques to truly rehabilitate criminals would breach our human rights legislation. (Because it would require intensive indoctrination techniques)

    So what can we do?

    First off – who are these offenders? Can we predict criminality early?

    Yes we can!

    Lots of research has been done in this area and we can predict future offending based on birth circumstances alone:

    > Born to a solo mother

    > Reliance of welfare

    > Parental neglect

    > Parental abuse

    > Born in a high crime area

    > Drug & alcohol abuse in the family

    Think about those.

    So consider what our welfare system is funding and thereby sponsoring.

  5. What does ‘rehabilitated’ mean – in this context?

    I’m serious.

    We have no idea of either the process or the end result.

    What will these people return to? What kind society will take them back? What doors become open to them? Is it worth all the effort on their part?

    It all sounds just so cute and ‘saintly’ yet –
    will they resume modern society fit to participate or prosper? Or simply to ‘know their place’ and have to be forever penitent for a debt that’s already been paid?

    It’s not just crims who need rehab: so does the outside society and its thinking.
    And what do we do with the ‘bad little blighters’? They’re there – despite what the ‘sweet innocence’ advocates say. And they’re very expensive. Do they get the input? Or do the main resources go to the many more who can be helped into richer lives?

    Problems. Ethical dilemmas – and they’re not challenges for politicians. Where are our reformed crims? We need to hear from them – as well as prestigious scientists and waffly sentencing people.

  6. Andrea – you make a very good point

    People talk about rehabilitation like as if it’s a thing. If it was practically possible, we would already be doing it.

    • Andrew, rehabilitation is obviously practically possible and works – look at Finland clearly workable and doable, and saves money, but it seems there is little interest in doing it well in this country…. we have that authoritarian punishment and the competition and privatisation model of the US and blindly following that…

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