Andrew Little’s drive to rethink the system goes up a gear today in a summit designed to help draw up a programme for reform. Ahead of the two-day event, in Porirua, north of Wellington, the justice minister speaks to Asher Emanuel
Andrew Little got a letter recently from a woman whose son is in prison.
“Now, admittedly, this is one side of the story. But it certainly seemed a credible kind of account to me. She talked about her 21-year-old son who had split up with his partner. He had moved out and moved to a different flat. His ex-partner had turned up with mag wheels that he had left at the old address; but she put them on her car and parked in front of his place. The way it was characterised in the letter, that was intended to be provocative.
“Anyway, he was, obviously, provoked, so he went out with a sledge hammer and started whacking the wheels on the car. Now, the way the letter was written, he apparently wasn’t threatening the young woman, but I can understand why she would feel threatened, and so she calls the police and he gets charged with an offence of violence. So he’s remanded overnight, and goes to the judge. The judge remands him in custody.
“Because he was in a small town, he gets remanded in a prison that’s a couple of hundred kilometres away. Within three or four weeks he’s lost his job. Lost his flat. Doesn’t see his family, who can’t afford to visit him. All of those, and now he’s just, according to the mother, he’s just in this depression now, and life just kind of completely…”
Little is making a point about the growing number of people locked up on remand. That is, being kept in custody ahead of trial, before they’ve been proven guilty or otherwise.
When the bail law was changed in 2013 to make it harder for people accused of serious offences to get bail, the Ministry of Justice considered the impact of the change on the prison population would be limited. The government said the change was necessary to improve public safety.
“We were told the maximum amount of people that it would affect in any one year would be under 200 or 250.”
Labour voted for it. Today there are 1,500 more people on remand than before the law changes. It’s part of some of the most rapid growth in the prison population in New Zealand history, and is one of the laws which Little has said may need to be changed and one of the issues the advisory panel has been tasked with considering. How did the ministry get it so wrong? Little doesn’t know: he’s yet to ask.
He worries about the impact potentially unnecessary remand is having on people, like the young man whose mother wrote to him.
“According to the letter, the ex-partner has since written to the mother to say that’s not what she wanted to happen.
“I mean even if some of that is true — if it was just attacking the vehicle, even if it was intended to piss off his ex-girlfriend — I’m not sure that warrants being remanded in custody.”
The recent report on prisons by the prime minister’s chief science advisor said remand in custody is criminogenic: it increases the chances of reoffending – is community safety better served by having more people remanded in custody?
Little hasn’t seen any research on the community safety impact of the 2013 changes, though he thinks the greater use of custody might be criminalising people.
“If the impact is that you’ve reduced their life chances, their opportunities, you kind of drive people to ask, ‘Well, what have I got left?’”
All this he said early last week, seated extremely upright in a lounge chair at his Wellington office. Despite having just returned from a weekend of robust discussion in Northland Little seems inexhaustible, holding forth with something like conviction.
He wants to deal with the factors, the causes, the underlying issues. He believes broken lives can be fixed.
“I mean, if that young guy I talked about, if his problem is an anger management problem — and according to his mother, he’s never hurt anybody — if his problem is an anger management problem, then let’s deal with it. There’s plenty of science on dealing with young men and their anger problems. Let’s deal with that. You don’t need to deal with it in a prison.”
Addiction, too. “We know that a lot of burglary, robbery and even some violence offences are related to just trying to feed an addiction, getting some cash to buy your next fix of meth or whatever. That’s where we’ve got to beef up our addiction support and our addiction programmes.”
And housing. In May he disagreed with his colleague, housing minister Phil Twyford, over whether Housing New Zealand was preventing people using state houses as an address for bail.
“There’s relationships between all those things. Certainly housing, and certainly a lot of the mental health and support services and addiction. That’s why we’re doing this big review on mental health and addiction.
“Then there’s those issues of economic poverty and deprivation, which you [address] through a decent economic development programme. All of those things have an impact in the end.”
He’s given the panel a mandate to look beyond the four corners of the criminal justice system.
“I’ve said to them their job — and there’s a few academics among them — is to draw on all that, draw on all their knowledge and understanding and come up with a programme.”
The panel’s work will probably focus, he thinks, on the early stages of the criminal justice system.
“But actually I do want to hear about what more we need to be doing on those related policy areas that contribute to either offending or not reducing offending or conditions where certain types of offending tend to proliferate.”
Little has been doing his own research too, including a trip to the Netherlands to take a look at a prison.
“I think what we’ve got to do is what I saw in the Dutch prison that I visited earlier this year. When a new prisoner comes into the system, they do a full screen: full health screen, full educational screen, go right through. It can take two to three hours with a single individual to know everything about that person, because then they can work out what the most effective interventions are.”
He was very impressed by the Dutch. “Their recidivism rate, their reoffending rate is less than half ours. The prison I visited has a reoffending rate under 30%, because they just take a different approach. Gee, if we did just some of what they’re doing I’m sure we can make a big difference.”
Back to New Zealand, though, and its legacy of colonisation: what will he be doing for Māori?
He points to Rangatahi Courts and Iwi Justice Panels, an early intervention approach for young Māori offenders, as some progress, both of which began under the previous government.
“We’re certainly doing a lot better there. The police are so enthusiastic about it, they say the difference on that young offender is huge.”
“I think the challenge lies in what we do in the prison system given that over 50% of the prison population are Māori and whether we’re doing enough there, particularly for Māori offenders, that reduces their chances of reoffending when they get released.
“I know visiting prisons, talking to prisoners and to Corrections staff and others, they say for a lot of Māori offenders coming in, those who aren’t connected to their hapū or their iwi – it makes a big difference in terms of rehabilitation compared to those who are connected, or who find their connection while in prison.”
Visiting the Iwi Chairs Forum recently, Little asked for help. “I said that we’ve got this reform programme we’re working on at the moment – and that’s not about the state abdicating its responsibility – but we need your help. Fifty per cent of the prison population are Māori and there’s clearly something we’re not getting right.”
The forum was very receptive, he said. “Whether that entails a totally separate or parallel justice system – I’m not convinced myself. But I do know and totally accept we need a criminal justice system that is responsive to Māori, to Pasifika, actually to other ethnicities as well, and who respond to different approaches and different ways.
“And I guess more sophisticated than what we’ve got at the moment, which is kind of one response to everything and if you’re not going to behave the first couple of times you offend, we’ll throw you in a prison and hope that you come out a better persons. And it clearly isn’t working.”
Working with parliamentary under-secretary for justice Jan Logie, improving responses to family violence is another area Little thinks is central to changing the system. The main contributor to the growing prison population, aside from the bail reforms, is more prosecutions for serious violent offending which Corrections advice suggests may be partly attributable to greater focus on family violence.
On this topic the chief science adviser’s prison report said: “A focus on family violence is laudable; an ineffective focus (by merely imprisoning more offenders without reversing the harm already done to their families, and without effective efforts to ensure the violence does not continue upon release) is frequently lethal.”
Does Little think the distinction between violent and non-violent offending is not always helpful in deciding whether or not prison is the right response?
“Yeah, I have these discussions with Jan Logie because her thing is very much that you’ve got to keep people safe and victims of the violence safe. And that is absolutely right. I think this is where even some of the NGOs, including Women’s Refuge, are now saying that we can’t just focus on the victim, we’ve got to focus on the perpetrator because there’s stuff we can do to reduce the possibility that they will reoffend.
“An ex-prisoner made this point to me recently. He wasn’t in there for family violence offences, but he said, ‘So many of the guys that are in there, it’s violence, it’s domestic violence, but they go from beating up their partner into a prison where it is male dominated, it’s all alpha-male, everybody’s braced for the next, you know, whatever.’
“He said, ‘You cannot, you cannot seriously expect to turn someone from resorting to violence in a prison. Because prison has a lot of violence in it.’
“Why are we putting all these domestic violence offenders into this incredibly violent environment? We do have to find a different response to that. It’s not one thing or the other. It’s multiple things. If we want to reduce the tolerance of domestic violence, we will only do that if we actually have effective interventions.
He points to studies that show many violent offenders have suffered traumatic brain injuries, “often from family violence from their childhood, often undiagnosed. They don’t understand why it is that they lose control. And, through a proper assessment, they find out actually they’ve been damaged because of violence inflicted on them.”
(In 2013, the Ministry of Health thought 64% of prisoners had suffered traumatic brain injury, compared to 2% of the population generally; but some studies have concluded it is closer to 80 or 90%.)
For all the talk of alternatives and effective interventions and underlying causes, he nevertheless thinks prison is the only option in some cases.
“There will be some people for whom any amount or kind of therapy and intervention probably isn’t going to work. But from what I see, that is a minority of the prison population.”
National’s justice spokesperson, Mark Mitchell, a former cop, wouldn’t agree. Ninety-eight per cent of prisoners are serious criminals he says. Every prisoner deserves to be in prison, Simon Bridges says.
Mental illness, substance addiction, a history of being subjected to violence and sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood maltreatment, poverty, unemployment; these were among the factors which characterise the prison population and which the chief science adviser described as “complex risks and vulnerabilities” – does Little think there has been an inadequate understanding of what has driven crime?
“Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely, I do. If you look at young offenders, the ones whose offending results in them being put in the youth justice facilities, something like 95% of them are victims of, or have been exposed to, family violence.
“If you’ve grown up in a home environment where you’ve had little or no love, you’ve been beaten up, or watched done of your parents being beaten up, or your siblings being beaten up, and nobody comes to do anything about, or CYF visits and not much changes, why would you not be anything other than totally lacking in empathy when somebody else gets in your way, or causes you offence?”
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