I note with some interest a piece from yesterday’s Herald, observing the positive results of a series of changes that have lead to somewhere between six hundred and a thousand New Zealanders fewer being incarcerated unnecessarily.
Now, without going into too much detail as to what’s changed and how – this has not actually involved any alterations in the law around parole, bail, or anything of that nature. But rather, a set of fixes to issues which fell ‘between the cracks’ of existing policy – and which had lead to these aforementioned numbers of Kiwis being placed in prison when they otherwise, by rights, would not have been.
The actual nature of these changes were succinctly summed up by Corrections’ National Deputy Commissioner, Leigh Marsh, as being “embarrassingly simple” fixes; which took as their baseline actually listening to front-line staff across the Corrections, Justice, and policing portfolios in order to try and sort out some of the “madness” (again, a quote from Marsh) of the previous status quo.
[“Status Quo”, as Ronald Reagan pithily observed, being Latin for “the mess we’re in [currently]”]
I am sure that the reaction from some quarters is going to be howls of protest about how this makes ordinary New Zealanders more unsafe through having hundeds of additional hardened criminals wandering the streets.
Yet the plain reality is, once again, that under our current laws, *none* of these Kiwis who’ve been spared incarceration as a result of these changes, would actually have been jailed had ‘the system’ been working properly in the first place.
A similar note of disquiet can and should be sounded about the ongoing opposition of the reforming of our bail laws to do something about the – again, hundreds – of New Zealanders who find themselves incarcerated on remand, especially for relatively less serious crimes, only to come out following their day in court declared an innocent man; or guilty, but sentenced only to a far lesser punishment.
It is worrying in the extreme that a situation of unjust imprisonment may be welcomed ‘just because’ it may make somebody else feel a little bit safer – indeed, it is tantamount to starting down the greased incline of asking whether certain segments of the population ought be ‘walled off’ for the general protection of the rest of us even regardless of whether they’ve actually been proven to have committed any crime.
(That said, I do have a vague soft-spot for the idea of ring-fencing parts of Remuera and cutting off their access to global financial markets and tax-accountants to see if it lessens the chances of both white collar crime and more general economic vandalism occurring in the wider country … but another punitive policy-set for another time).
The sheer simplicity of these ‘fixes’, and their demonstrably substantial impact (last month’s NZ prisoner muster was ~10,205 – meaning that the reductions in inmate numbers these shifts in policy has achieved range from about five to just under ten percent of our overall prison population), suggests that they should have taken place years ago.
That said, the fact they did not would appear to indicate that one of two (possibly both at once) things has happened.
Either a) National and its various Ministers to have held the portfolio, were incompetent. That is to say, despite Bill English’s declaration of our prison system and our country’s massive incarceration rate to be “a moral and fiscal failure”, it never occurred to anybody in power at any point over the past nine years, to stop and realize these problems – these *easily solvable problems – existed. Or, given the habitual Nat management strategy, to allow or otherwise empower their various underlings to come up with the solutions so that they might more deftly take credit for them.
Alternatively – and I suspect that this is vastly more likely – b) National and its various Ministers to have held the portfolio (including one Judith Collins, in what appears some sort of inverse, ironic, contrapasso of the damned) *were* at least vaguely aware, or should have been, of these ongoing issues and the ease with which they might be sorted … and *consciously* (or, at absolute best, wilfully negliglently/recklessly) chose to do nothing about them. For the simple reason that for a certain portion (although not everybody) of the “law and order” crowd – escalating prison numbers mean axiomatically safer communities, and that the police, courts, government … society at large .. is somehow doing its (various) job(s) properly.
High prison muster figures, therefore, are thought to be akin to a notable budgetary surplus, so to speak, when it comes to courting those people and their votes.
(There is a separate rant about the frank bizarreness of endeavoring to run a surplus in the midst of a recession, despite a historically low cost of crown borrowing, and accomplished via a studious string of cap-handed cuts to essential services and vandalism of a well-earning asset portfolio … but that is, again, another immanent critique of the previous round of ‘Status Quo’, for another time)
Criminal justice policy, along with creationism in school science lessons, is one of those curious areas of the socio-political landscape wherein otherwise seemingly rational and indeed intelligent people start abandoning their critical faculties in a bid to make the loudest emotive arguments and the swiftest progress to a state possibly adjacent to that of Texas.
It is refreshing, indeed, therefore, to have made such a shift from a situation wherein Corrections was being presided over by a Minister who thought that prison-rape would be a desirable deterrent element against future offending, through to more reasonable figures capable of looking at the sector through the lense of ‘lives’ rather than ‘votes’.
Let’s see if this trend continues with the reception to some of Andrew Little’s proposed further reforms in this area 😛