Correcting Corrections

The Department of Corrections is accused of putting public safety at risk, but with a huge workload and our swelling prisoner population, department staff seem to have been given a Mission Impossible

Prime Minister John Key and his Corrections Minister Judith Collins have given the State Services Commission 10 days. Officials have just a week and a half to find the culprits for the department’s failure to adhere to its own approved procedures for the supervision of convicts in the community; the procedures put in place following the murderous rampage of parolee Graham Burton two years ago.

Key and Collins want accountability for a long list of shortcomings identified in Auditor General Kevin Brady’s review of parole services in the post-Burton period.

That has been interpreted as having the head of Corrections chief Barry Matthews delivered on a polished plate. However, if Commissioner Ian Rennie does the job of identifying everyone responsible for the flaws in the Corrections’ system, there will be a parade of plates and the executioner’s list will range well beyond the bounds of the beleaguered department.

In considering the culpability of Corrections’ management, we also need to contemplate the possibility that we have sent them on “Mission Impossible”. The Department of Corrections is one of the biggest operations in the State services. It cares for 8,000 prison inmates, 35,000 offenders serving sentences in the community, operates 20 prisons and 180 offices throughout the country, and employs a workforce of 7,600 employees, including prison officers, probation officers, community work supervisors, rehabilitation facilitators, psychologists, nurses, clinical staff, researchers, planners, admin staff and executive.

Over the last eight years, its mission has expanded dramatically both in terms of scale and complexity. The passage of the Sentencing and Parole Act of 2002 introduced longer sentences for many offences and a requirement that public safety be paramount in any decisions to release prisoners on parole. Since it was introduced, the prison population has increased by a massive 57%. The staggering growth has also been fueled by an increase in police crime clearance and prosecutions, and the growth in detainees being held on remand during legal proceedings.

Next came the Labour-led government’s “Effective Intervention” package of 2006 – introducing three new forms of community sentences supported by electronic monitoring: intensive supervision, home detention, and community detention. The number of offenders receiving these new community sentences shot from zero to 4,000 within a year of their introduction in 2007. Over the same period, the number on existing community sentences – community work and supervision – also jumped by 20% from 25,000 to 30,000.

The broader use of community sentences saves the State a lot of money. It costs around $91,000 a year to keep an offender in prison, $25,000 a year to keep one in home or community detention with electronic monitoring, and $3,665 a year for one on standard community work or supervision. However, the sustained growth in the total volume of community sentencing since 2007 has been well above the levels expected by the advocates of change, and well above the level that the Department of Corrections was funded to manage.

Staffing of the Corrections Community Parole and Psychological Services group has increased 95% since 2003 when implementation of the current round of corrections reform began. The Department believes it still needs an additional 200 probation officers, 17 psychologists, and 50 management and administrative support staff to deliver adequate standards of compliance with community sentences and conditions of parole – and it advised the incoming government of this immediately after the election. Unfortunately, the explosion of new recruitment at Corrections has already dramatically reduced the level of experience within the department. Some 40% of its total workforce has less than two years’ experience on the job. In the area managing probation and parole, the picture is even worse: 48% of employees have been working in this year for less than two years.

Worse still, the majority of probation staff are not culturally aligned with the more rigorous monitoring and reporting requirements designed to ensure that public safety is paramount as new sentencing and offender management policies are implemented. A Corrections survey of staff attitudes early last year found probation officers understood that sentence compliance was important to senior management, but considered that management over-emphasised sentence compliance at the expense of rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders in the community. Despite the shock of the Burton rampage, probation staff still did not understand why sentence compliance is important – or did not agree with it.

Under Matthews’s leadership, a programme to change probation staff attitudes was launched last year. Unfortunately, beliefs can’t be changed overnight.

What's more, there are other problems to consider. An examination of Corrections’ handling of Burton prior to his rampage also revealed some serious flaws in the Parole Act of 2002, a law which was supposed to make public safety the paramount issue for consideration. On November 2006, more than a month before Burton’s rampage, the police advised probation officers that they had information that Burton was involved in criminal activity. The probation offices asked for evidence. In December, the police responded that they were not in a position to provide an affidavit to support an application to the Parole Board for Burton’s recall to prison, “as the information was ‘informer-based’ and … providing this information would compromise the identity of the informer”.

At that time, the Parole Act provided no authority for the Parole Board to call witnesses on its own account if they were not presented by the Police. In February 2007, a month after the Burton rampage, the Parole Board suggested to the Prime Minister that the Act should be amended to allow it to do so. The Act was amended last October. But this change didn't address the central question raised by the Burton case [and, no doubt, many other cases involving high-risk offenders on parole]: can the Parole Board take unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behavior from an anonymous police informer into account in considering an application to have a parolee recalled to prison?

The Law Commission thinks it can. It says that Section 117 of the Parole Act makes it clear that the Parole Board may receive and take into account whatever information it thinks fit, whether or not the information would be admissible in a Court. However, the Parole Board’s ability to recall a parolee to prison simply on the basis of hearsay evidence presented by the Police on behalf of an informer whose identity was being protected has yet to be tested by appeal – and no doubt it would be.

On the basis of all this evidence, my contention is that Corrections is an organization that has been traumatized by the shock of rapid policy change, explosive growth in the scale and complexity of its workload, inadequate analysis of the potential impact of sentencing policy by the Ministry of Justice, and the grey cloud of doubt over Section 117 in the current Parole Act. If real accountability is being called for, Commissioner Rennie’s list of culprits should make the guillotine-watching Madame Defarge look like a rank amateur.