Justice On The Agenda

- Liz Gordon

The 1987 Roper report on the prison system noted with horror that there were now nearly 3,000 people in our prisons. It argued for a system of “habilitation” for offenders and a range of other options to reduce the numbers in prison. It must have been one of the most ignored Commissions of Inquiry in history. Almost from that date both National and Labour have entered a bidding war over who could be the toughest on crime. Over the following 25 years numerous laws have been passed to increase sentences. Police numbers have been increased (and of course more police equals more crime, as it were). 

The rise of the influence of the Sensible Sentencing Trust was an aggravating factor. For a number of years the ubiquitous Garth McVicar was asked to comment on every single justice issue that came up.  Whatever the question (with a couple of exceptions, as when a pakeha man stabbed a Pacific youth to death for graffiti crimes), the answer was “lock ‘em up”. Oh how times have changed. It began, I believe, when Bill English called the prisons a “moral and fiscal failure”. Oddly enough, while the issue for justice campaigners was clearly the moral side, the thing that played out in the media and political spheres was the cost of keeping people in prison. At $92,000 per head, not including capital costs, could we not do better than pushing endless bodies into incarceration?

If English’s comments were the tip of the iceberg, what we have seen in recent years has been the beginning of a mass melt, culminating in the Government’s recent Reducing Crime and Reoffending Action Plan. It was great to see the Minister, Anne Tolley, tell the nation that she and activist Roger Brooking (a campaigner for high quality alcohol and drug treatment services in prison) were “on the same side”, even if he looked a little bemused by this. It has all happened so fast! While it has been the fiscal issues, the sheer waste of public money on incarceration, that may have tipped the balance for the Government, it is the moral issues that drive campaign groups, like the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Mass Imprisonment Of Maori

We can begin from a simple question, which is why are incarceration rates per 100,000 of the population more than a third higher than those in our neighbouring penal colony, Australia? The answer is pretty unpalatable: while Australia locks up its indigenous people at a high rate, New Zealand’s rate of Māori imprisonment, at 52% of all prisoners currently, is just flabbergasting. Whole communities are decimated by the imprisonment of Māori, and especially Māori youth. Not only that, but incarceration locks in poverty, deprivation and a sense of whakama, or shame, in Māori communities. It sets up a them and us barrier that is virtually impossible to overcome. Prison instead of education, unemployment instead of jobs, benefits instead of wages.

In short, mass imprisonment (because we can truly call it that in terms of Māori society) is a huge anchor dragging down the work being done in the field of Māori development. Until this can be turned around then Māori society as a whole cannot prosper in Aotearoa. How quickly things change!  In early April 2012, the Howard League launched a petition asking: “We petition that the Government inquire into the causes of the high rates of imprisonment in New Zealand, compared to other countries, and especially:

  • Whether rates of imprisonment per population should be reduced by 1/3, in line with Australian rates
  • Whether prison is an effective deterrent to crime;
  • Whether the Corrections budget could more effectively be spent to reduce recidivist crime;
  • Whether Māori imprisonment rates, which have been climbing for 50 years, can be reduced;
  • Whether the justice system is serving the needs of society, including the victims of crime; and
  • What policies could be implemented to safely and effectively reduce prison numbers, especially for short or medium term sentences, and rehabilitate offenders”.

Change Of Heart From Both National & Labour?

A few months on, and the petition is almost (not quite) out of date, as the Government gets progressive on justice policy.  It is very odd. I was particularly pleased at the launch of the Wellington Howard League to hear Grant Robertson speak, as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Labour’s role in escalating imprisonment rates in the 1999-2008 Government was unforgiveable. There was no voice in that Government for reducing imprisonment rates, and the tough on crime message was constant. In Grant, though, the justice reform movement may have found a genuine champion. He is the real deal, the child of a white collar worker who stole money from his employer and was sentenced to two years in prison. The experience of shame, agony, love and crumbling relationships stayed with him.  Of that time, he said:

“… I was the only one of my siblings living in Dunedin at the time. And every week, sometimes twice a week for the 15 months that he served, I visited my father in Dunedin Prison. It was, literally, a Victorian prison. Built in the 19th Century, it spoke more to Charles Dickens than to someone living in late 20th Century Dunedin. It was cold, so very cold. It had little more than an exercise yard the size of this space here by way of open space.  My father, 50 at the time, began developing circulation problems.  As a white collar criminal he faced the taken for granted abuse of that class of prisoner. He ate most meals standing up with his back to the wall. Exercise was limited.  Those circulation problems never went away and became part of a set of health problems that ultimately led to his death at age 67” (speech to launch of Howard League Wellington Branch, 2/4/12).

Here is the natural counterpoint to the “lock ‘em up” brigade! Someone who actually knows what prison is really like, how it saps the spirit and the health, and alienates not only prisoners but their families. So this is interesting times, isn’t it? National’s out of the blue policy shift is announced, and Labour has a new champion. Instead of a race to the bottom in justice policy, perhaps we are seeing the dawn of a bright new race to the top. As the Editor notes, this is an odd article for Watchdog, as it praises both National and Labour.  I assure readers I will not make a habit of it.

A central plank of National’s justice policy is promoting prisons run by transnational corporations, of which the first is Serco from the UK. It was reported in July 2012 that Serco had failed to meet half its performance targets at Auckland Remand Prison (which is next to Mt Eden Prison). Three inmates were wrongly released, one escaped and three were wrongfully detained. It was fined $150,000 for one escape; $25,000 for releasing one inmate early; and $50,000 for failing to file progress reports. Despite that, the Government continues to defend the company’s performance and has awarded it the contract to operate a new prison being built in South Auckland. Ed.


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