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Corrections and clarifications – unpicking Judith Collins’ prison number explanations

Opinion: the minister’s tough-on-crime agenda is at odds with much of the wider direction on justice and corrections, writes Di White.

“Explaining” is not a mode politicians tend to enjoy. Following the release of new figures that show the prison population at a record high, the recently reappointed Minister of Corrections, Judith Collins, went into explaining mode, penning a piece for the Herald headlined “Explaining the record high prison population”.

There’s a certain neatness about the fact it’s Collins who is minister in charge of the country’s prisons as numbers hit record levels. Collins was Minister of Justice from 2011 to 2014, a period that saw a spate of “tough on crime” reforms that have, by her own admission, fed into the current explosion in prison numbers. It was Collins driving the agenda that saw sweeping changes to bail that make it more difficult for an accused to be bailed, resulting in increased pressure on remand facilities; Collins who implemented the three-strike laws that force judges to hand down the most severe sentence in certain circumstances, irrespective of whether it is deemed necessary or appropriate; Collins who changed the process for serious offenders seeking parole, meaning more prisoners serve the duration of their sentence in prison, thereby limiting opportunities for a safe reintegration while still serving a sentence.

Paremoremo Maxium Security Prison, Albany. Photo: David Hallett/Getty Images

Paremoremo Maxium Security Prison, Albany. Photo: David Hallett/Getty Images

It is the Minister of Justice who sets the agenda and the policies for the justice system. Corrections just wipes up the mess that follows. Collins has made her bed and, due to an unexpected demotion and an eventual rise back to the front bench, she has to lie in it.

In more recent years, it’s fair to say that Collins’ tough-on-crime agenda has sat somewhat at odds with the government’s wider direction in terms of justice and corrections policy. In 2011, Bill English made his oft-quoted remarks about prisons being a “moral and fiscal” failure. Ray Smith, the current CEO of Corrections, has made all the right noises about the need to focus on rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of offending rather than blindly throwing money at more prison beds. If you’re like me and you spend your evening perusing the Department of Corrections LinkedIn profile, you’ll see a steady stream of posts about all the nice, warm fuzzy things prisoners are up to – baking, carving commemorative benches, pitching in with the set up at WOMAD and even building toys for children. It’s a long way from Judith Collins speaking at the Sensible Sentencing Trust annual conference (let that one sink in for a moment),ridiculing those who believe in the rights of offenders or those who seek to unpack the drivers of crime – what Collins sees as allowing offenders to abdicate responsibility for their actions.

Her response to the record high numbers has the same flavour as that speech to the Sensible Sentencing Trust six years ago: a dogged belief that if we just locked up all of the criminals, society would be safe. It’s not explicit but it’s there: a high prison population is not a failing in Collins’ mind. It might even be a sign the system is working. There’s a lot to unpack in Collins’ piece, so let’s focus on some of the more egregious remarks.

‘The rise in the prison population has received a lot of attention lately and some people have questioned the increase against the backdrop of a falling crime rate.’

Attention is not something prisons always get a lot of. Prisons are, by their very design, out of sight and, for many, out of mind. There are few cohorts of society as disadvantaged across all indicators as prisoners, whether in literacy, education, health status, ethnicity, unemployment or income. Disadvantage breeds disempowerment, and disempowered people aren’t generally the type to garner much attention. In fact, Collins has recently gone out of her way to make outside attention on prisons even more difficult in requiring that all MPs go through her office if they want to visit a prison.

Attention on prison numbers is made harder by the fact that Corrections, for some unstated reason, stopped publishing quarterly statistics in December 2014. In an environment in which requests for government data and information under the Official Information Act take months to trickle back, and in a heavily redacted state, it’s difficult even to know when something needs attention. So the fact that New Zealand, a country with one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the OECD, has seen further increases in its prison population is definitely something worthy of attention. Whether or not Collins thinks it is warranted.

‘The increase since 2014 has mostly been driven by the increase in the remand population.’

Collins makes a lot of noise about the fact the increase in prison numbers has been largely felt in remand prisons. She states that the increase in remandees stems, in part, from the above-mentioned changes to bail and sentencing laws – changes she devised and implemented as Minister of Justice.

The flow-on effect of these changes to the remand prison population should come as no surprise for Collins. With respect to the Bail Amendment Act 2012, which reversed the burden of proof for some defendants seeking bail, Collins’ own Ministry provided the advice that the changes would incur a cost to the corrections system of up to $4.59 million per year due to the increased number of defendants being held in custody (that being the combined projected fiscal cost of the Ministry’s preferred options). Four years later, she’s painting the record high numbers as something “caused” by changes to the law, a flow-on impact outside of her control, as if governments should not be expected to project the impacts of their policy making.

The pressure on remand facilities has been well illustrated in recent months, with nothing short of chaos erupting at Auckland’s main remand facility, Mt Eden Correctional Facility. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of prisoners kept in overnight remand facilities for up to six weeks because there simply is not enough space. Collins is right: there is a crushing pressure on remand facilities. What Collins is omitting to add is that she was one of the key drivers behind this pressure.

‘Fewer people are being sent to prison but those who are sentenced to prison are serving more of their sentence so they are not able to commit as much crime. This may be a significant factor in the fall in the crime rate.’

If you managed to read this without an onset of shooting pains in your head and having to get up for a little angry pace, congratulations, you are a stronger person than me. Let’s start with the assertion that people serving longer sentences are “not able to commit as much crime”. Try and get past that “much crime” sounds like something from the now retired Doge meme, and focus on how this speaks to the fact that Collins sees prisons as an effective crime prevention strategy. As if all we need do is round up all the bad people, ship them off to prisons and leave them there, and we’ll “fix” crime.

It’s a level of simplicity that speaks not to stupidity but stubbornness. Collins must have an entire government ministry – and her deputy leader – telling her that crime prevention does not start in prisons. It starts in addressing the drivers of crime, the social conditions that act as a petri dish for crime and offending. If she isn’t getting this advice, it’s worth asking why not, given that you’d be hard pressed to find one criminologist who would suggest prison has any role in preventing crime in the long term. Because, sure, while a person is in prison they are constrained from offending, but almost all prisoners are released at some point.And when they come out, as they almost invariably do, what was a petri dish for crime and criminal offending has grown into a full-scale crime lab: if a person isn’t already socially excluded when they go into prison, they almost certainly will be when released. Putting people in prison does not prevent crime; it breeds it.

For Collins to suggest that longer sentences and keeping people in prison longer is contributingto the “falling crime rate” is where the tiny shooting pains in my head really kick in. Let’s start with the fact that the “crime rate” is not a proxy for community safety or for the level of criminal activity in our community. Crime rates reflect what police report. Every day, police exercise discretion as to what criminal behaviour they police and prosecute. This is a good thing: the young teen who nicks a T-shirt from Kmart probably just needs some attention, not a court appearance. Go to any summer music festival and you’ll find thousands of 20-somethings taking a range of illegal drugs with a couple of police officers quietly bouncing along to the tunes, very happily turning a blind eye to the criminal activity happening in their presence.

In recent years, the police have significantly increased the use of alternative resolution (PDF, 39) such as pre-charge warnings and diversion. Energy and effort has been diverted from policing and prosecuting low-level offending to addressing more serious and violent crime. It’s a smart approach in an environment where government funding is finite. What it means is that a reduction in the crime rate does not necessarily correlate with a reduction in the amount of crime actually taking place in the community and in our homes. It simply speaks to where police are placing their efforts. In addition to an emphasis on diversion and other forms of alternative resolution, the Ministry of Justice points out that the reduction in crime is consistent with trends observed in similar countries, and reflects “positive or neutral demographic changes”. It seems Collins is the only one drawing a line between the increase in prison population and the falling crime rate.

‘While our prisons are full of perpetrators of family violence, many of these individuals were themselves also victims of family violence as children, and some as adults. Tragically, the cycle is repeated through generations and as a country we must to more to address it.’

It’s as if a press secretary added this back in after Collins scrawled in the margins of the draft STOP MAKING EXCUSES FOR THE CRIMINALS and attached a copy of her speech to the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s annual conference.

‘Gang members are also heavily represented in the prison population. Close to one third of the prison population are active gang members. Gang offenders reoffend at twice the rate of non-gang offenders, and with increasing seriousness.’

This mention of gangs seems to have no relevance other than to suggest that the high prison population is justified because prisons are full of gang members. Again, this plays into narrative that prison is an effective way of keeping our communities safe; by keeping the bad guys off the street, Collins is keeping our communities safe. Moving right along.

‘Finally, it is important to point out that while the prison population is increasing, there will still be an emphasis on rehabilitation, including education and employment, drug and alcohol treatment and other programmes which will help to reduce reoffending and keep the public safe.’

This is perhaps my favourite passage from the piece: a beautiful afterthought to the idea of rehabilitation, buried in the depths of Collins’ vision for a prison system with the sole function of simply removing dangerous people from the streets. Collins has spent a solid eight years as the head of Police, Corrections or Justice. She’s had eight years to see the failure of prisons up close. She, like many people who have come before her or filled similar roles, should be a leading expert on just how ineffective prisons are; instead, eight years on, she’s trumpeting prison as a way to reduce crime. There is nothing rehabilitative about Collins’ vision for the prison system. These final words ring eerily hollow.

On no marker is our prison system a success. When at its best, it’s not in crisis. At its worst, it’s in its current state – chewing up more lives and more money than ever. If Collins started listening to the many voices, both within her government and beyond, calling for a fresh approach to prisons, she might not have so much explaining do.

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