Dr Liz Gordon – How to bring down prison numbers (the definitive guide)

By   /   April 14, 2018  /   18 Comments

TDB recommends Voyager - Unlimited internet @home as fast as you can get

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.

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!).

Want to support this work? Donate today
Follow us on Twitter & Facebook


  1. Sarah says:

    I agree. Make the punishment fit the crime, instead of throwing away the key.
    Recently a fraudster was given home detention and the ability to have a job. That seems like no punishment at all to me. I’d rather that person was made to repay society by working for the community not themselves and repaying any money stolen. Keeping this sort out of prison, but working to pay for their dishonesty, while locking up only those who are dangerous to the public or past victims is common sense.

    • Michelle says:

      Well if they are working for the community Sarah they are more likely to commit another crime if they don’t have a stable income.
      Have you seen or do you know anything of the William Yan case the Chinese immigrant with many names who committed 129 million of fraud. You might want to have a look at the punishment he got it makes a mockery of our justice system.

  2. CLEANGREEN says:

    We need to return to the “egalitarian estate” as the best country in the world was when after the second world war.

    Our forefathers did this to unite us all, and our health and wellbeing soared as crime and unemployment dropped off during the 1950’s.

    Bring back the shared values of making everyone a beneficiary of the bounty of our resources in our “NZ commonwealth”

  3. Andrew says:


    The crime rate today is much lower than it was in your egalitarian paradise after WW2.

  4. Andrew says:

    Herald article:


    Twenty-three people were convicted of murders committed while free on bail over a five-year period, say Ministry of Justice figures obtained by the Herald.

    A further 21 were convicted of “homicide-related” offences committed while on bail.

    These included manslaughter, attempted murder and driving causing death.

    Figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act show four people were convicted of committing murder while on bail in 2006, six each in 2007 and 2008, three in 2009 and four in 2010.

  5. Lone comet says:

    Betterment not punishment is the way Nordic prison systems are going, we should study their systems, what out what is successful and implement new strategies here that have been put into practice there and hound to work – Norway, Iceland,Finland…many articles written about this, check Guardian

    • Andrew says:

      This isn’t Norway sunshine

      • Lone comet says:

        No kidding. Similarities are crime and people who commit them.

      • countryboy says:

        @ ANDREW. You’re opinion is increasingly as boring as you must be, moonbeam. You’re a shilling little minion to the 1%’ers sent here as a confederate partner to @ ABABY. Correct?
        And you post one of your sources as The NZ Herald… Bahahahahahahaha hahahaha aha ahaha a a….
        I keep writing; you’d be better to go off, hand in hand with @ ABABY all a-skip and giggle, to whaleoil or kiwi blog where you won’t feel so alone.

  6. ababy says:

    You need to give them a life. Like on the new biodynamic farm collectives replacing the mycoplasma infested dairy areas. You know, the restorative justice and mixed social welfare multipurpose ecocommunities that don’t exist yet

    [‘Ababy’, you are approaching the red-line of trolling. If you have nothing constructive to offer, your posting privileges may be suspended. – Scarletmod]

  7. CC says:

    I would say life without parole for rapists, murders, home invaders that sort of thing but no prison for people involved in cannabis in any way shape or form

  8. countryboy says:

    You want to lower prison numbers?
    I’m as thick as a plug of clay yet I know how that could be achieved.
    #1. Decriminalise all drugs. Redefine drug use and possession as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

    #2. A universal minimum wage for the sick, unemployed and unemployable. Grinding poverty does things to the human mind. It perverts the way it functions. And slowly yet surely it will render the sufferer into a husk of a human being who literally and figuratively can’t afford to give a fuck about anything except getting through the day and the colder night. You’ll eventually look like shit, your teeth will be pulled out because our government won’t divert taxes away from fat wankers to fix them and you’ll be lonely and unlovable.

    #3. Tax the 1%ers. Tax the bastards until they squeak to pay for the above. And don’t any of you fuckers give me any of that ‘people who work hard should get to keep their income’ bullshit. The real people, who work hardest of all are the homeless who must be on their feet and walking amongst those others who’ve learned how to fuck everyone on the deal. I’ll never forget how useless Bankster jonky was at hammering in that nail. He can fiddle away with our taxes but he couldn’t build a chicken coup. And there are thousands of those kinds of useless pricks here.

    #4. A free to air TV channel showing quality documentaries and drama/humour/etc.
    Open the windows on the minds of the terminally impoverished. I know, from experience, that people who’re poor as fuck must watch TV because that’s all they have. And NZ TV is abysmal. It’s utterly vile and it’s main-lining directly into the amygdala’s of children and the children of children. Where else are they getting information and values from? They can’t afford the internet or books. They get U$A day time tv.
    And you wonder why NZ people are being imprisoned in alarming numbers?
    I can’t wait for the endless debate by a constant stream of intellectuals and goody do-gooders who work in the ‘communiddies’ who blow out hot air and achieve nothing, except perhaps make excuses to the victims of white collar crime and try to teach them how to make do and get by.

    The 13th
    Black people, specifically, being used as a recourse for the U$A incarceration industry

    Chris Hedges . Another and to quote jonky: “ loser Pulitzer prize winning journalist and no doubt henchman to the Left” . 
    “Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction. Once we adopt an upbeat vision of reality, positive things will happen. This belief encourages us to flee from reality when reality does not elicit positive feelings. These specialists in “happiness” have formulated something they call the “Law of Attraction.” It argues that we attract those things in life, whether it is money, relationships or employment, which we focus on. Suddenly, abused and battered wives or children, the unemployed, the depressed and mentally ill, the illiterate, the lonely, those grieving for lost loved ones, those crushed by poverty, the terminally ill, those fighting with addictions, those suffering from trauma, those trapped in menial and poorly paid jobs, those whose homes are in foreclosure or who are filing for bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills, are to blame for their negativity. The ideology justifies the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, shifting the blame from the power elite to those they oppress. And many of us have internalised this pernicious message, which in times of difficulty leads to personal despair, passivity and disillusionment.”
    ― Chris Hedges

  9. Jack Ramaka says:

    Maori and Pacific Islanders are racially profiled by the NZ Police ?

    • Michelle says:

      yes your right Jack we are also more likely to be apprehended even if we haven’t done anything wrong Andrew the ex-pig has a typical white policemans mind, it is small, shallow, dumb, bigoted and bias. That is why we have so many problems within our NZ police force they need a good clean up and no ones seems to be up to it yet.

Authorised by Martyn Bradbury, The Editor, TheDailyBlog,