The Justice Advisory Board appointed by Andrew Little says it will take a generation to transform the system. So with New Zealand's three year election cycle, Little needs to get on with it

Writing in Newsroom last week, Laura Walters discusses the work being done by the Justice Advisory Panel appointed by Andrew Little. She says the Panel has found that:

“there is widespread acceptance that New Zealand has a broken justice system”.

She says the head of the advisory panel, former National MP and Minister of Courts Chester Borrows, claims there needs to be a change of focus from punishment to healing, and quotes him as saying:

“the type of changes being promised would take at least a generation to be delivered.”

Apparently, Justice Minister Andrew Little and National Party justice spokesman Mark Mitchell agree that transformative change like this will take time.

Key statistics

The notion that the justice system is broken is based on three key statistics. The first is that prison population recently hit an all-time high of 10,800 – although it may have dropped a bit since then. The second is that 50% of inmates are Maori even though they make up only 15% of the general population. The third is that rehabilitation programmes are ineffective with the result that 60% of prison inmates re-offend within two years of being released.

Rather than ‘broken’, the number of Kiwis in prison suggests the system is far too efficient. It has been locking up Kiwis in record numbers, currently 220 inmates per 100,000 of the general population. The reality is that New Zealand incarcerates more people than corrupt, undemocratic countries such as Honduras – which has the highest murder rate in the world but a prison rate of only 200. We also lock up more than other western democracies such as Australia where the rate of imprisonment is 167 per 100,000; England & Wales (143); Canada (114); Finland (57); and Iceland (38) –  which is rated the safest country in the world and has exactly the same number of murders per head of population as New Zealand.

Solving the primary problem

So, if we solved the first problem – that there are too many Kiwis in prison – that would largely solve the other two. For instance, if there were only 5,000 people in prison instead of 10,000, only 2,500 would be Maori instead of 5,000. Similarly, even if 60% continued to reoffend, that would be 3,000 reoffenders instead of 6,000.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle institutional racism in the justice system or try to reduce re-offending, but the greatest gains will be achieved by quick-fix measures which reduce the prison population.

Once upon a time, Andrew Little would have agreed. He said he wanted to reduce the muster by 30% within 15 years. He seems to have given up on that goal. Instead of reducing the prison muster, now he wants to fix the entire justice system and claims it will take a generation – which is about 30 years.

That’s a shame – because the prison population could be easily be reduced by 30% within three years. All the government has to do is repeal the Bail Amendment Act of 2013 that led to an extra 1,500 people sent to prison on remand (i.e. not yet convicted); and allow 1,500 low risk prisoners to be released automatically half way through their sentence – instead of making them go before the Parole Board which, according to Mike Williams, has lost the plot.

Unfortunately, after failing to repeal the three strikes law, Little seems to have given up on amending any legislation at all. Instead, it seems he wants to change the punitive culture that Garth McVicar, disproportionate media coverage and the two major political parties have generated in the past 20 years by talking ‘tough on crime’ – a process known as penal populism.   

Instead of using legislation, it seems Little now wants public support to change the public narrative – but admits he’ll have to wait 30 years to get it. 

Running out of time

The problem is, this Justice Minister doesn’t have 30 years. He doesn’t even have 15. Or 10. This coalition government has two years to run. Simon Bridges is not doing well as leader of National and so Labour may get another three years. So if Little is serious about cutting the prison muster, or reforming the justice system, he needs to get on with it.

And he’s dead wrong when he says it’s not about the legislation. The current crisis in the prison muster is a direct result of a raft of tough on crime bills passed by both National and Labour in the last 20 years; both parties have been all too willing to jump on Garth McVicar’s bandwagon to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’.

Little seems to have realised the futility of this approach; he recently referred to McVicar as ‘loopy’.But there is no doubt that the current crisis in our prison system is the direct result of 20 years of fear-mongering and scare tactics about keeping the community safe. 

Now Little wants to reverse course. But he can’t repeal any of these measures because Labour doesn’t even have the support of coalition partner, NZ First, let alone the New Zealand public.

I rest my case. It’s not the justice system that’s broken. It’s the political system.

Comments (42)

by Tim Watkin on October 30, 2018
Tim Watkin

They're always striking stats Roger, thanks. 

Two thoughts: First, sure letting people out will sort those statistics, but statistics on their own aren't the measure are they? It's live damaged. So if people are not imprisoned but continue to offend, then great we've reduced recidivism but that's no victory.

So the question is whether we know prison makes it more or less likely to offend again in the two years after the first offence, isn't it?

And second, is it that the political system is broken, so just that the argument hasn't been won yet? You disagree with NZ First's position, but that on its own isn't proof of broken politics is it? 

by Dennis Frank on October 30, 2018
Dennis Frank

Ever since I wrote a paragraph advocating rehabilitation into draft Greens justice policy in the early nineties I've been noticing a spreading consensus that rehabilitating criminals is better than keeping them in prison.  Acceptance of the theory, however, only gets us so far.  We now are more in need of accurate reporting on how well it is working in practice. 

Ongoing failure to provide stats to the media puzzles me, as public support would grow in proportion to proven successful application of the theory.  Political support for traditional practice & the SST would ebb accordingly, so why aren't all politicians calling for regular progress reports & updates??

Mike Williams provides a suitable analysis of Parole Board dysfunction, without any apparent solution being offered.  What terms of employment are these people on?  How soon can they be replaced?  They seem totally useless, so is an act of parliament necessary to eliminate them - so as to replace them with competent operators?

Perhaps Little wants to front as a typical Labour parliamentarian:  pretend to be solving the problem, without actually doing so.  He needs to toughen up & kick arse.

by Roger Brooking on October 30, 2018
Roger Brooking

Tim -  When the murder rate is at a 40 year low; when NZ is rated the second safest country in the world  and the least corrupt country in the world, where are the damaged lives you mention? It seems to me they exist in the deranged mind of Garth McVicar and the media which willingly creates a moral panic over isolated incidents of violence.

by Roger Brooking on October 30, 2018
Roger Brooking

Dennis - rehabilitation in prison is almost entirely ineffective. Corrections used to publish evaluations of each of their rehab programmes in their Annual Reports. I have frequently blogged about how ineffective they are: see 11 out of 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison not working – at a cost of $159 million a year.

Corrections seems to be so embarrassed by their continuing poor results that the 2018 Annual Report has omitted them entirely.

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Tim - it's not just NZ First that is contributing to the problem. One could argue that Labour and National politicians caused the crisis in our prisons by giving in to Garth McVicar's populist rhetoric for 20 years.  In other words, the problem was caused by, and continues to exist, because because politicians are gullible and ignore the facts. And the facts are that ...

1)  sending people to prison does not reduce reoffending (in fact incarceration increases the likelihood of reoffending) &

2)  sending people to prison does not keep the community safe.  

In 2017, 35 Kiwis were murdered - the lowest number since 1975. That's less than one a week. Also that year, 105 people drowned - that's two a week. 380 New Zealanders died in road accidents - that’s over seven a week. 668 Kiwis committed suicide. That's nearly 13 a week. 

What this means is that New Zealanders are twice as likely to drown as to be murdered; seven times more likely to die in a car accident and 11 times more likely to commit suicide. Risk is part of life - and the idea that prison keeps us safe is largely an illusion (although it does keep us safe from a small percentage of prisoners that are psychopathic and need to be locked away).

Have we won the argument? Unfortuntely not - because politicans are far more interested in votes than facts.

by Ross on October 31, 2018
Ross

Roger, I did enjoy your diatribe. I would’ve enjoyed it more had you talked about victims. Apparently they do not exist. All those prisoners and not a single victim! Remarkable.

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Ross - Perhaps you didn't know that the vast majority of those who end up in prison are also victims. As children they were often subjected to all kinds of psychological, physical and sexual abuse; many grew up with parents who had addictions and mental health problems who took their frustrations out on their children with violence.

As adolescents, they joined gangs to find the support and protection that was lacking in their own families. These victims slowly turned into criminals because as children, they did not receive the help or interventions which might have turned their lives around.

There is very little separating victims from offenders - they are often one and the same - but that's another story.

by Ross on October 31, 2018
Ross

Bail laws in Victoria have been strengthened after a string of murders and other serious crimes. It’s a shame some people have to die before the system is changed. 

https://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-08/victoria-set-to-tighten-bail-justice-system-after-review/8505506

 

by Dennis Frank on October 31, 2018
Dennis Frank

Thanks for the feedback Roger.  It raises the question of whether the theory of rehabilitation is invalid, or whether the design and/or implementation of rehabilitation is flawed.  I read your blog posting you linked us to, and the comments, all helpful.  Gave me the impression that policy implementation by public servants is where the dysfunction is being generated.

So it looks like the old story of public servants operating as cynical time-servers rather than serving the public.  That's due to employment contracts and departmental charters failing to compel suitable job performance.  To recycle sixties imagery, Nat/Lab parliamentarians ought to have this gnosis of how flawed legislation produces a sick society inserted into their brains via application of sledgehammer to coal chisel.

I agree with Ross - victim's rights have been ignored or discounted way too long already.  I haven't noticed any advocacy of them by any organisation that victims may have formed to apply leverage in their common interest.  I hope that obvious lack in public discourse around justice & corrections is rectified soon!

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Bail Laws in NZ were toughened up by the Bail Amdenment Act in 2013. See: How the murder of Christie Marceau led to 1,500 more people in prison. Are you happy now?

 

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Frank - you haven't "noticed any victims advocacy by any organisation..." What about Garth McVicar and the Senceless Sentencing Trust? Where have you been for the last 20 years?

by Ross on October 31, 2018
Ross

Am I happy? I am not sure why you’re asking me that rhetorical question, Roger.

You say that most prisoners have had an awful upbringing but you don’t present any evidence to prove that. And you seem to suggest that it’s an excuse. It isn’t. You ignore the fact that many kids who have had a terrible childhood don’t end up in prison or victimising others. They realise where they came from and don’t want to inflict the same damage on others. 

You also don’t prove that Christie Marceau’s murder resulted in 1500 additional prisoners. And you ignore public safety and the rights of victims. 

 

 

 

 

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Ross - this is an 850 word article, not a book.

 

I asked if you were happy because you posted a link to a story about the tighteing up of bail laws in Victoria. You seem to think this is necessary to keep society safe - even though many more people will die in car accidents (and from many other preventable causes) than get murdered each year.

NZ already tightened the Bail laws in 2013 - so from your limited perspective that safety is only related to crime, we're about as safe as we can be. If that's your goal, you should be happy.

by Dennis Frank on October 31, 2018
Dennis Frank

McVicar & the SST haven't been advocating for victim's rights in any of their public positioning that I've seen in the media, ever since they started.  Did you ever see McVicar explaining to the public that he was a victim himself?  I didn't.  They just do the old christian moralising & punishment routine.  Fossils.

My point was that victims ought to form their own lobby group rather than continue to act like victims for the rest of their lives.  Self-transformation and self-empowerment became useful strategies for victims back in the seventies.  Nobody can pretend that they are ignorant of these options.  They've been an integral part of our culture for 40 years or more!

by Ross on October 31, 2018
Ross

I asked if you were happy because you posted a link to a story about the tighteing up of bail laws in Victoria. You seem to think this is necessary to keep society safe

Did you wonder why bail laws in Victoria were tightened? The Jill Meagher case and other cases showed that the criminal justice system there wasn't prioritising public safety. Meagher's killer was on parole and on bail. 

Of course, we could go down the same parth. Be careful what you wish for. 

https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/murder-of-jill-meagher-was-p...

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Dennis - I take your point. But this article is not so much about victims - its about the way in which politicans have responded to McVicar's BS about keeping the community safe - with the result that we now have over 10,000 Kiwis in prison. The cost to the taxpayer is horrendous and takes funding away from teachers, nurses, roads, hospitals, etc.

by barry on October 31, 2018
barry

The bail laws strengthening was based on the premise that you can predict who will commit a crime in the future after they have already done so. A portion of people will offend on bail as judges are not perfect, but we don't hear about the ones that don't.  We could make the streets perfectly safe by locking everyone up, but that would clearly be ludicrous.

Keeping people locked up when they are accused (not convicted) of a crime, gives police the power of arbitrary detention.  When a person may have to wait years for a trial, and they may be acquitted or the sentence may be less that the remand period then remanded citizens are being denied their civil rights to freedom.

Yes we need to consider victims.  There are some cases where a person needs be be locked up on remand to keep them away from victims or witnesses.  However this is a small percentage, and judgesd are usually aware of them.

Most victims are not served well by having the perpetrator punished severely.  I can understand the feelings, but the happiest victims are the ones who have forgiven.  Restorative justice works in a large number of cases to help the perpetrator see the effects of their crime, and help the victim to heal.

I don't know why NZers are so evil that we need to be locked up in such large numbers to keep us safe from each other.

 

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2018
Roger Brooking

Well said Barry. Totally agree with you. 

And since any one of us is seven times more likely to be killed in a car crash than murdered, locking up large numbers of Kiwis makes even less sense. We would save more lives, and increase public safety by adopting additional measures to reduce the road toll.

by Ross on November 01, 2018
Ross

Actually, Roger, we put resources into driver/road safety and the criminal justice system. We can do both! 

Do you believe violent offenders should be given parole or bail?

by Roger Brooking on November 01, 2018
Roger Brooking

Ross - you're mssing the point. Over the last 20 years both National and Labour have responded to violent crime by passing new tough on crime laws - even though the number of murders in NZ has been dropping for 40 years. 

But when 350 people die on the roads every year, apart from the standard police warnings to avoid drink driving etc, no one calls for a law change. Which of these issues presents the greater risk to the man on the street - or in this case the road? Clearly its car accidents.

The intense focus on victims of violent crime ignores other risks to life. And its not just road accidents. Over six hundered people commit suicide every year - and the numbers are going up. Getting depressed therefore poses a greater risk than getting killed by a random stranger. We need to put taxpayer funding into areas where it will make the biggest difference.

Victims of crime need counselling, support and possibly financial compensation. And crims need to be held accountable. But locking up more and more people is a waste of valuable resources and does make the community any safer.

by Roger Brooking on November 01, 2018
Roger Brooking

That last sentence is supposed to read: But locking up more and more people is a waste of vaulable resources and does NOT make the community any safer.

by Roger Brooking on November 01, 2018
Roger Brooking

According to JustSpeak, 77% of people currently serving a prison sentence have themselves been victims of family or sexual violence. 

by Ian MacKay on November 01, 2018
Ian MacKay

Restorative Justice. To vastly increase the expertise for running such programs and being very selective about which people should be involved would go a long way to reducing recidivism. Tim Chapman from Northern Ireland is an expert and advocate for RJ. He notes that an accused person does not currently confront his/her crime because the lawyer will work hard to minimise the crime and its effect. RJ goes a long way to get the criminal to confront his errors and allows victims to begin repairs. (Kim Hill with Tim Chapman.)

https://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player?audio_id=2018668600

by Dennis Frank on November 01, 2018
Dennis Frank

I accept that victims' rights are a side-issue in respect of reducing prison numbers, Roger, and I agree your holistic approach is helpful.  Suffice to note that politicians would not have responded to McVicar & the SST quite so reactively if a victim's lobby group had fronted in parallel, right?  Particularly if they supported restorative justice!

Anyway, given that "the Justice Advisory Panel" reports "widespread acceptance that New Zealand has a broken justice system”, we all ought to focus on how to fix it.  Your thesis  Its not the justice system that's broken - its the political system seems to emanate from an assumption that it's up to politicians to fix it.  Inasmuch as any fix requires a law change, quite so.  However, the notion of crowd-sourcing wisdom has become popular in recent years and an organised way of doing that may be necessary to concentrate the attention of politicians.

So while you finally point to the lack of consensus between NZF & Labour as the roadblock preventing progress (rightly so, I expect) what we need to do is apply an ancient problem-solving frame.  Archimedes  said `give me a lever and a place to stand and I'll move the world'.  Famous politicians often recycle this insight (you can find their quotes compiled online).  So to shift the conceptual log-jam we just need a suitable lever and find the most effective place to use it.

Are you involved with the New Zealand Howard League, Roger?  Do you see it as a suitable lever for shifting the politicians towards consensus on a solution to the problem?  If not, why not?

by Roger Brooking on November 01, 2018
Roger Brooking

Dennis and Ian - you both make some excellent points. In my opinion, the conceptual log jam is the seriously misguided notion that strategies which might reduce the prison population are seen as decreasing the safety of the community.

Restorative Justice is an underused process in NZ which if implemented more widely would result in fewer people being sent to prison. It's use needs to be expanded. 

Drug courts are also highly effective at reducing reoffending and also lead to less use of prison. There are only two drug courts in the whole country and they process only about 100 offenders a year. According to the Law Commission, 80% of all offending is alcohol and drug related. The use of drug courts needs to be expanded nationwide.

These are administrative approaches rather than overtly legislative ones and so the public and opposition MPs might be willing to go along - thereby circumnavigating the conceptual log-jam. But we still need legislative change because tough on crime laws passed in the last 20 years funnel far too many people into the system. We need to decrease the number entering the funnel as well as adopting more humane approaches to those who get caught up in it.

Mike Williams is doing excellent work on behalf of the Howard League but his focus is more on helping inmates with literacy issues and drivers licences. That may well have some impact on re-offending down the line. But ex-prisoners also need jobs. If you have a prison record, jobs are hard to come by - especially in our judgemental society. The Clean Slate Act needs amending to make it easier for ex-prisoners to find work.

by Ross on November 02, 2018
Ross

Roger

You didn’t address the question of whether violent offenders should be paroled or bailed.

Out of interest who are the 1500 prisoners who you want to see let out of prison early? What crimes are they in prison for?

by Ross on November 02, 2018
Ross

The “intense focus” on victims of crime? I have no idea what you are talking about. You didn’t mention victims once in your diatribe. The problem is a lack of focus on victims. There ought to be a much greater focus.

You keep referring to car accidents. That is misguided. The word accident is key. Criminals don’t accidentally assault, rape or kill. And as I’ve said we can and do devote resources to driver/road safety AND the criminal justice system. It’s not a case of either or.

by Roger Brooking on November 02, 2018
Roger Brooking

Ross - Suicide is also deliberate. It creates victims as well. Whether death is the result of a deliberate act or the result of an accident does not alter the fact that people die and there are grieving family members in both cases.

Victims of crime are not the only victims in society - but your comments on this article focus solely on victims of crime (ie intense focus). You show no awareness or understanding that other ways of dying also produce victims. 

If we want people to feel "safe", we need less people dying of unnatural causes and therefore less victims. Since it is probably easier to prevent accidental deaths than deliberate ones, we should do a lot more of that. 

by Katharine Moody on November 02, 2018
Katharine Moody

Congrats Roger on an excellent, informative website and on the petition initiative with respect to 'quick fixes'.

One bit of additional information that would be of interest to me relates to the information under the heading:

2) Eliminate very short sentences of six months or less

I would be very interested in a list of what are typically the kind of minor offences that result in these short term sentences... even better if some percentages could be associated with each of the different types of offences.  I'm thinking that if we as a society concentrate on the prevention of the more common of these types of offences, we can make a bigger difference as well.

Thanks again for the work and effort you have put into this problem.

by Roger Brooking on November 03, 2018
Roger Brooking

Katherine - you can be sent to prison in NZ for just about any crime on the books - both minor and serious crimes. The length of the prison sentence imposed depends on a number of factors, including the offenders age and how many previous convictions they have.

Take a look at the case of James Whenuaroa who was sent to prison for stealing orange juice. He was a chronic alcoholic - he should have been sent to a compulsory rehabilitation programme.

 

by Roger Brooking on November 03, 2018
Roger Brooking

James Whenuaroa - here's the link.

by Katharine Moody on November 03, 2018
Katharine Moody

Thanks, Roger - have just reserved 'Flying Blind' from our local library.

by Lee Churchman on November 06, 2018
Lee Churchman

You're right on the facts, Roger, but facts no longer matter. Politicians aren't going to waste their time going against the public on this issue. Voters hate government wasting resources, except when those resources are used to brutalise criminals and people they don't like.

by Charlie on November 07, 2018
Charlie

Roger:  "The reality is that New Zealand incarcerates more people than corrupt, undemocratic countries such as Honduras – which has the highest murder rate in the world but a prison rate of only 200."

So our prison system is achieving its primary objective: Keeping dangerous criminals off the street and thereby maintaining a low murder rate.

 

 

by Roger Brooking on November 08, 2018
Roger Brooking

The problem is there are way too many people in prison who are not dangerous criminals.

by Lee Churchman on November 08, 2018
Lee Churchman

The problem is there are way too many people in prison who are not dangerous criminals.

No, that is an effect. The real problem is the underlying cause. 

We know—as it has been proven—that the more a person tends to authoritarianism, the more they live in fear of a dangerous world.

We also know that the human brain uses the frequency of perceived events as a proxy for how common those events are, and we know it has problems distinguishing between the real and unreal—that’s why many people feel they know celebrities, because they see them all the time and frequency is a proxy for familiarity.

In the same way, the average person is fed a never-ending media diet of crime, violence, and horror, which results in them believing that violent crime is far more common than it actually is. They ‘know’ that this isn’t true, but the way their brain works makes it feel true, and many of them aren’t good at letting reason rule over their feelings.

Put all this together and you have a society where many people live in fear of a crime wave that doesn’t actually exist. It’s a really hard problem to fix, especially since violence, sex, and sexual violence are such great sellers in the media world. Hence the public appetite for harsh punishments.

by Roger Brooking on November 08, 2018
Roger Brooking

So Lee - in your first comment, you argue that prison is keeping dangerous criminals off the street thereby maintaining a low murder rate. Now you say society lives in fear of a crime wave that doesn't exist. Do you agree that we lock up so many people because the media perpetuates moral panics over random violent incidents....?

by Roger Brooking on November 09, 2018
Roger Brooking

Sorry Lee - I think I mixed you up with another commentator. Your stance on the issue is totally clear.

by Charlie on November 11, 2018
Charlie

Roger: "The problem is there are way too many people in prison who are not dangerous criminals."

How many is too many?

According to Stats NZ the most common offences leading to incarceration are in order:

1. Sexual assault and related offences (violent)

2. Acts intended to cause injury (violent)

3. Unlawful entry with intent/burglary, break and enter (possibly violent)

4. Robbery, extortion, and related offences (mostly violent)

5. Illicit drug offences (most involve violence because they're nearly all gang members)

6. Homicide and related offences (violent)

What's more, the average prisoner has been before the courts a dozen or more times prior to imprisonment and probably has a sealed youth record too. The vast majority have violence in their offending history.

So we lock up violent thugs. Thugs for whom violence has been the norm all their adult lives and probably their subadult lives too.

Exactly how are you going to rehabiliate them Roger?



by Roger Brooking on November 12, 2018
Roger Brooking

How many is too many? At least half. 

I found the page you got your dodgy info from. It describes six main offences accounting for 83% of inmates being sent to prison. That leaves 17% sent to prison for other minor offences.

But you misunderstood what you were reading - 35% of the 83% involve 'unlawful entry', 'robbery' and 'drug offences'. These do not involve violence. 35% non-violent plus 17% minor equals 52% - who are in prison for non-violent causes. 

by Roger Brooking on November 13, 2018
Roger Brooking

As for rehabilitation, most violent offending occurs under the influence of alcohol. If more resources were put into early intervention and addiction treatment in the community, many of these so-called violent offenders wouldn't be in prison either.

by Charlie on November 13, 2018
Charlie

Best of luck with that rehabilitation Roger  :-)

 

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