Many of us have been advocating a policy-led reduction in prison numbers for a long time. Instead, there has been a policy-led increase in prison numbers. I have talked before about the effects of Christie’s law, that has seen the number of people held in prison before their trial rise by 1,000 to 3,000. Most of those are neither a flight risk nor a danger to the rest of us. Some of them are not guilty and will be found so at trial.
Just a reminder. Our rate of imprisonment is 220 per 100,000 of the population. Australia’s rate is 167, Britain’s is 142 (135 in Scotland) and Canada’s is 114. We beat all those countries on the World Peace Index and the World Happiness Index. Something is very wrong in paradise.
After years of shouting apparently into the wilderness, things are stirring. Last week a very interesting panel discussion on The Nation came out in favour of lowering the numbers in prison, not building a new prison. The Chief Science Advisor released a report showing that all the research argues that the focus needs to be on reducing the numbers in prison, not increasing them. Don’t build that prison, it said.
How do we get the numbers down by about a third, as a start? This will end double-bunking, which is just horrible – confinement up to 15 hours a day with a person you might despise, watching them going to the toilet and fighting over the TV channels. A third is also the figure cited by Andrew Little. It’s a good start, I think.
A third is roughly 4,000 people. Thinking in broad terms about how to reduce numbers, we might look at four things.
Reducing the numbers on remand by half to 1,500
This was the number of remand prisoners in about 2007. There are four good reasons for doing this. First, time spent on remand has increased dramatically and around half spend their whole prison sentence on remand (including those found not guilty when they eventually get to trial). Second, Māori males are even more heavily over-represented on remand than they are in the overall prison system. Third, prisoners on remand get no access to programmes and services – for example, no drug treatment. Finally, holding people for long periods without trial is an abuse of human rights. It should be done only for community safety reasons.
Increasing the number of prisoners achieving parole
Current success rate for parole is around 23%. I have read a few cases (all up on the website) and barriers to more people achieving parole are usually the lack of opportunities for education, training or work. Sometimes it is a lack of treatment facilities. I think the Corrections system needs to become more purposeful in helping people fulfil the requirements for parole, by offering more courses, helping people into work inside and outside the prison and being pro-active in maintaining and improving family relationships. A good start would be to raise the annual success rate to around 40%, saving around 1000 places in prisons.
More non-custodial sentences
Finally, there are many poor souls who are in prison having committed dishonesty offences (or drug dealing) to feed their addiction habits. Some have suggested a form of drug court for these people but the main thing that is needed is strong support to overcome their addictions.
I have had prisoners tell me they are glad to be in prison because it keeps them away from the drug temptation. But many revert to use when they get out. So something new and effective is needed. I don’t know whether a drug court is the answer, or something else, but I am sure that 1,000 prisoners can be diverted to effective treatment services, and perhaps include a community service element.
So there’s 3,500 to start with, which is more or less 30%. On top of that, courts need to be challenged to find non-custodial options. I personally have always favoured structured reparation over imprisonment. The person who defrauds me should come and do my garden every week for a sentenced period. Or paint my house, I am not fussy.
To achieve all this, we must get people to understand that our society over-imprisons. Falling crime and rising imprisonment rates is a poor combination. Let’s do this! Don’t build that new prison. This is a defining moment for this government and the justice system.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).