It is over a year since the August 2018 hui told the government that imprisonment was not working to solve the problem of crime in Aotearoa. The model of high security prisons, guards running around in stab-proof vests, top-down security, very limited access to programmes to solve the mental health and addictions that are rife in our prisons and so on, known as the American model, just makes things worse, is extremely expensive and a blight on our society.
There are some figures that I like to cite. New Zealand is No. 2 on the Index of World Peace (this is despite our high imprisonment rate, which is an indicator in this index). We are number 8 on the World Happiness index (yes there is such a thing, and yes we are). One of the world’s most peaceful and happy lands.
Out of 223 countries listed, where do you think we rank (from lowest to highest) on the world imprisonment rate? About halfway, perhaps? Halfway is the United Kingdom (rank 112), with a rate of 140 for every 100,000 persons. Higher than most countries in Europe (which, as of today, the UK officially still is), there are major policy efforts over there to bring this figure down.
Perhaps we are closer to the Australian figure? Where will we find them on the index? Oh yes, they rank 132, worse than the UK but… nowhere near the NZ ranking. While we always exceed Australia on measured outcomes such as peace and happiness (for good reason), they beat us hands down for keeping people out of prison.
So there we languish, sitting uneasily between Moldova and Honduras, in 163rd place, around 75% down the table of imprisonment from least to most imprisoned. We have not always been in that uncomfortable space. Even as late as the 1980s, there were around 2,000 people in prison, comparable perhaps to around 3,000 to 4,000 now, with our increased overall population.
Then came the neo-liberal 1990s, the professionalisation of state incarceration, the wrapping of all our prisons in the wire and barbs of high security, a small amount of privatization (the Serco prison at Wiri, which is by no means the most authoritarian of our prisons), and the growth of a new, but implicit view that incarceration should be common and punitive. The views of the Sensible Sentencing Trust came to rule the airwaves, with the mantra of lock ‘em up.
I remember the occasion when I realised that that this culture was far from endemic – that alternatives were possible. You may remember it too. Emma Woods was walking with her two sons along Linwood Avenue in Christchurch when a young man (then aged 17) lost control of his car, barrelling into the family and killing one of the boys.
The parents made it clear from the start that they wanted none of the punitive nonsense that was so strong at the time around the country. In particular, they said that they did not want the driver to go to jail. They saw nothing to be gained in such a punishment. And the court respected that view, dishing out community service and a fine.
What was interesting was the consternation with which the parents’ grace was met by the national media. It is not that the parents did not mourn for their son – their victim impact reports were a searing reminder of what it is to lose a child – but they were steadfastly against imprisonment as a solution, recognising that it did not solve anything. This young man has never since offended, as far as I can see from media reports. Had he gone to prison, who knows how he may have turned out?
So how do we do it? First, I think we need to raise the threshold for who goes to prison, changing consideration of sentencing. The judge issuing the sentence would need to show either that the person needs to be incarcerated to keep others safe, or the crime is so serious that the community demands a severe punishment, and that the prison environment is required to provide a therapeutic and educative environment for anyone sentenced to it (an imprisonment plan, if you like).
Anyone who is in prison who is either low or minimum security (which is over half of the prison population) should not be there unless there is a real and present threat to persons outside from ‘his’ release (this group is nearly all men who threaten women). Anyone in for non-violent offences should be considered for therapeutic options outside the prison.
Don’t even get me started (again) on our dreadful record of holding people for months or more in prison without trial or access to rehabilitative services. Our remand record is dreadful, with (for example) 40% of women prisoners currently being held on remand. Reduce! Reduce! Change the law back to how it use to be!
How about this one: under virtually no circumstances would a mother actively caring for her children attract incarceration as a sentence (I didn’t make it up, there is some recent research on this). My avid readers will know that I am very interested in non-authoritarian forms of incarceration for women which are cheaper and much more effective in reducing recidivism.
Prison is too often in sentencing rules a first rather than a last resort. We need to turn that around. And quickly, please – time is running out for justice reform.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.