New Zealand is widely perceived as a safe country and yet we don't seem to feel safe -- and 20,000 Kiwis spend time in prison each year

Compared with other Western democracies, New Zealand seems to be keen on sending its citizens to prison. Our prison population has been rising for the last 50 years and in October 2010, reached a total of 8,892 inmates. New Zealand now locks up 199 people per 100,000 of its population.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College in London, this gives us the second highest rate of imprisonment out of 29 countries in the Western world. This is higher than Britain and Canada, even though those countries both have greater rates of violent crime than New Zealand. And it puts us in the company of Third World countries like Gabon, Namibia and Libya (currently in a state of civil war) which have very similar rates of imprisonment to ours. It even puts us higher than Colombia, despite the drug-related murder and violence going on there.


NZ perceived as a peaceful country


This is very strange when you consider that from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace -- out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 indicators including corruption, violence, crime rates, military spending and access to primary education. Other countries in the top ten include Iceland, Japan, Austria and all five Scandinavian countries.


In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations (out of 169 countries) in terms of ‘human development’ - defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’ based on information about life expectancy, schooling, income and a number of other factors.


Perceptions of ‘safety’


Despite these rankings, New Zealanders continue to believe that violent crime is out of control. The same United Nations report that placed New Zealand third in the world in terms of human development also assessed global perceptions of crime and safety.Between 2006 and 2009, only 57% of New Zealanders reported feeling ‘safe’.


Internationally, New Zealanders feel no more secure than the citizens of former communist states like Bulgaria (where only 56% feel safe) and Albania (54%). We’re also on a par with Middle Eastern countries like Iran (55%) and Lebanon (56%) and African countries such as Angola (53%), Nigeria (51%) and Uganda (51%).


New Zealand’s response – ‘lock ‘em up’


There’s something wrong here. In the United States, where the murder rate is four times higher than in New Zealand, 75% of the population report feeling safe. In other words, public perceptions of safety in New Zealand are seriously out of touch with reality.




As a result, for those who commit crime, prison has increasingly become New Zealand’s punishment of choice. The only Western country with a higher rate of imprisonment than ours is the United States -- which locks up a massive 748 people per 100,000. The imprisonment rate for Maori is 704 per 100,000 of Maori population, which is not far off the US rate.


Disturbing figures

These are disturbing figures, of which most New Zealanders are probably unaware. There is a similar lack of awareness about the number of New Zealanders sent to prison each year. The daily prison muster is currently at 8,755 -- but this figure is deceptive, as the prison population is very fluid.


Fourteen thousand New Zealanders are sent to prison on remand each year, most for only a few weeks or months at a time.Adding to the transient nature of the prison population, around 80% of sentenced prisoners serve less than six months and are ‘maintained’ in prison without the opportunity to attend rehabilitation programmes. The result is that, altogether, more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year.

Comments (8)

by BeShakey on September 01, 2011

Also important to remember that all of this has costs (around $80,000 per prisoner per year, and rising as new prisons are built).  If you prison population was (proportionately) the same as Australias, we would save over $200 million per year.

This is money that could be spent on healthcare, education, or tax cuts, depending on your political preferences.

by Iain Butler on September 01, 2011
Iain Butler

If only there was some sort of mass communication system that could deliver these facts to our insecure citizens. These "media" could impart our crime statistics and jail rates in relative terms, putting into perspective our enthusiasm for jail, instead of, say, using the Sensible Sentencing Trust and relatives of murder victims as experts on crime.


by Mr Magoo on September 01, 2011
Mr Magoo

Ideally they would be "independant" also.

But I think you are way to naive Iain. While such a system may start out with lofty ideals and promises of great service to the community they would eventually be worn down and bought out by corporate interests.

Money talks after all and never moreso than in the mass media. :)

by Roger Brooking on September 05, 2011
Roger Brooking

If our rate of imprisonment was the same as in Scandiavian countries, we would save even more than $200 million. Not forgetting the media in Finland played a huge role in helping to reduce their prison population by over 70% - over a period of about 25 years.In order to assist the process, they agreed:

1) To publish regular education pieces about the difference between factors which contribute to the crime rate (mainly sociological) and those which contribute to the rate of imprisonment (mainly political).

2) Not to sensationalise violent crime when it occurred.The politicans also agreed to this...amazing!

I can't see NZ media or politicians agreeing to either of these.

by Roger Brooking on September 24, 2011
Roger Brooking

Iain: The problem is the public and media are not interested in what happens to those who end up in prison. I was talking to a journalist yesterday about the difficulty of getting stories about prison issues into the media. He said the general perpception in his newsroom was that prisoners are 'scumbags' -  which unsurprisingly is also how the public tends to see it. Garth McVicar has done his work well.

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