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OPINIONOpinionSeptember 29, 2022

Prisoner numbers are down: let’s not go back to a ‘lock ’em up’ mindset


The past few years saw the steepest drop in prisoners New Zealand’s ever had. Jarrod Gilbert looks at the possible causes of the reduction, and fears that Election 2023 might reverse the trend. 

Few statements have been so telling as when Bill English, a level-headed and conservative minister of finance, said that prisons are a moral and fiscal failure.

It was 2011, a time when prison numbers in New Zealand were continuing their dramatic rise. But that was not the most important back drop. The world was emerging from the global financial crisis and nothing, it seems, tunes the moral compass of a finance minister like an economic crunch.

It’s unfair to say that money was the only thing driving English. When I spoke to him he told me that he’d seen the impacts of prison and the failure of its promise. And in that he’s right.

A large part of the promise of prisons is reform but, with reoffending rates alarmingly high, the vision of prison as a place where people rehabilitate is a difficult case to make.

English did appreciate the moral failures at play, but the numbers drove him. He got Treasury to devise a model that calculated four significant risk factors that predicted serious justice spending on any given individual: CYF (now Oranga Tamariki) reporting abuse or neglect; reliance on a benefit since birth; having a parent in prison or on a corrective sentence; and having a mother without formal qualifications. The more factors present, the greater the cost to the state.

English, then, cracked open a door and slowly the pendulum of public mood swung. Every third paragraph in the media about crime no longer had a forceful sentence or two from Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and the public seemed open to new ideas.

Former prime minister Bill English, pictured as finance minister in 2016, knew the high price of prisons. (Photo: Getty Images)

And new ideas were needed. In 2016 the prison population in New Zealand was nearing capacity. And I don’t just mean vaguely in the realm of capacity, I mean bursting at the seams, what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do capacity.

A new prison was proposed at Waikeria. The cost was an eye-watering $1b.

Nobody thought that was the best way to spend that sum of money, but in the lead up to the 2017 election, National – with Bill English now at the helm – was clearly unconvinced by any public mood shifts. National scarcely talked about the long-term measures English had championed, and instead they went to the hustings banging on about sending young offenders to boot camps. It was a baffling decision and a total misreading of the prevailing public breeze.

Labour, on the other hand, came to power with the promise of reform in the Corrections area, and indeed the justice system more broadly. They had an impressive justice summit and subsequently another one focused exclusively on Māori. They also put together Te Uepū, the Justice Advisory Group, but those moves achieved little other than bringing together the well-known issues.

But that’s not to say nothing has been done or that things haven’t changed. The advent of the Criminal Cases Review Commission is a big development – although it has been rather slow in getting its engine running at top speed. And initiatives around tackling family violence, on paper at least, seem strong.

But a far more intriguing development has been what has happened in New Zealand’s prisons. The numbers have dropped, and dropped dramatically.

After hitting a peak of nearly 11,000 in early March 2018, the prison population now sits comfortably below 8,000. It is the most dramatic reduction in prison numbers in New Zealand’s history.

The key metric here ought be Māori.

Māori overrepresentation in criminal justice is a key indicator of the country’s health. Not because reductions here point to improvements in offending, but because the tributaries that create the river to prison are a plethora of social and economic issues that blight Māori, such as overcrowded housing, intergenerational poverty, state care abuse and failure, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, educational failure, and racism. If we see improvement in criminal justice figures, it will certainly show improvements across healthy community measures.

Wellington protesters at a 2020 rally against Oranga Tamariki’s removal of Māori children from whānau. Inadequate state care has been defined as a key contributor to incarceration. (Photo: RNZ/Ana Tovey)

The good news is the raw number of Māori in prison is down; however their drops have not been as significant as non-Māori, meaning the percentage of Māori in prisons has actually increased. In other words, the drop has impacted on Māori, but along the unequal lines we traditionally see.

What has driven these decreases is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Over the longer term, the number of young people being locked up has dropped. Over the shorter term, Corrections has made efforts to ensure that those eligible for bail or parole are given the best possible chance of getting it (many were denied simply by not having suitable addresses, for example). But perhaps a more significant driver is from the judiciary, who have responded to the shift in the community mood about the lack of efficacy of prisons, meaning less serious offenders are being directed away from prison. The percentage of people imprisoned for violent and sexual crimes has increased but, interestingly, community-based sentences don’t seem to have taken up any great slack of lesser crimes, so perhaps the answers lie in police prosecutions. Or maybe the answer lies altogether elsewhere.

The one elephant in the room is Covid, and it may turn out that the bulk of the drop is something of a mirage.

The leader of the opposition tweets on crime – defined as a key issue of Election 2023.

Time will give us the answers, but in reality, timing is the key. We need to reimagine how we see crime and, rather than just reacting to it, we need to think about preventing it. Prevention of crime needs to be our focus if we are going to make substantial gains. In criminal justice matters, there are all manner of uncertainties, but of that I’m absolutely certain.

Prisons are a huge expense and they will never give us the answers we want. We need to get ahead of the issues.

I rather fear we have blown a real opportunity to seed this idea during a period when the public seemed ready to hear it. With the political drums once again beating a tough-on-crime rhythm, and an election about a year away, the pendulum may be about to swing again.

Keep going!