Christine McCarthy looks at New Zealand political parties' criminal justice policies ahead of the general election, and argues open prisons would have a much better shot at prisoner reintegration than our current prison infrastructure.
The past year or so has seen much debate on our criminal justice system.
The Government’s Safe and Effective Justice advisory group has resoundingly pointed to a failed system and a need to rethink the fundamentals of how we do things. Deficiencies in support for those with mental health and addiction needs have been highlighted, and this forms an important context for election policies this year. What is clear is there is substantial agreement across the board regarding party priorities for prisoners.
Better access to education, trades training and post-release support (including housing and employment), along with addiction treatment and mental health support for offenders, form part of all parties’ policies. National’s ‘Clean Start’ policy to provide wrap-around support for recently released ex-prisoners is one example that aims to proactively prevent reoffending by helping people access employment, housing and other support in the community.
Properly addressing these needs of prisoners so they can succeed after release picks up one of the strong messages from the Safe and Effective Justice advisory group. This consensus could be productively built on by whoever forms the next government and begin the long overdue changes identified in myriad reports since at least the 1980s.
The most obvious disagreements remain in approaches to prison sentences and remand. These policies affect the number of people in prison, the cost of the prison system, the average age of prisoners, and reintegration and recidivism outcomes.
Where The Opportunities Party (TOP) and the Greens want the three-strikes legislation and recent bail and parole laws repealed, New Zealand First and the New Conservatives are advancing stricter bail laws, mandatory minimum sentences and reduced use of concurrent sentences.
Longer sentences will add additional strain, with no benefit, to a system already creaking. Prison conditions will worsen, with more in-cell time, less access to rehabilitation, and pressures on staffing levels.
The stratospheric increase in remand prisoners in recent years illustrates how seemingly small law changes can affect this. In June 2020, the remand prison population was 37 percent, a near doubling since 2013, when the Bail Act changed. At a daily cost of $302 a remandee, we currently pay $225.86 million more annually to house remand prisoners than if 2013 levels had been unchanged. Perhaps that money could be put to better use helping people in the community?
Current projections are that by 2029 people yet to be tried and sentenced will surpass sentenced prisoners. That’s disturbing when we are already one of the world’s greatest incarcerators. Our current rate of 199 prisoners per 100,000 of population finds company with Saudi Arabia (197) and Jordan (198). Australia's rate is 169, the United Kingdom 133, Canada 103, Norway 60 and Japan 39.
While the policies of New Zealand First and the New Conservatives are likely to exacerbate this unsustainable situation, National is not promoting longer adult prison sentences. It is, however, promising to increase the ability to sentence offenders under 18 years of age in youth justice facilities.
Green Party and TOP policies to reduce the prison population and increase alternative sentences to prison (eg restorative justice, addiction treatment) are consistent with the advice of Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s former chief science advisor, who in 2018 noted that “the costs of prisons far exceed those justified by the need to protect the public. We keep imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data ... prisons are extremely expensive training grounds for further offending, building criminal skills, damaging their employment, accommodation and family prospects, and compounding mental health and substance use issues”.
Labour also aims to reduce the prison population, and New Zealand First would introduce a greater range of non-custodial sentences.
Green Party policy is the most explicit regarding intentions to address institutional racism and, with TOP, promote iwi involvement and tikanga Māori solutions, and address the disproportionate incarceration of Māori (who comprise over 52 percent of prisoners). Previous Māori Party policy also addressed these issues, but its current policy is not yet available. The recent strategic plan for Corrections (Hōkai Rangi) squarely commits to reducing the number of Māori in prison, so a continuation of this thinking can be expected with the re-election of current Government parties.
The surprise among the policies is the New Conservatives’ three-stage prison system. This comprises stages of discipline and work in prison, education and trades training, and time in open prisons, where prisoners work in the community while still living in prison.
It’s not clear what is meant by “discipline”, but a more comprehensive open prison system would positively expand the current release to work scheme and the use of self-care units. Open prisons would better support successful prisoner transition and reintegration than our current prison infrastructure, especially given our high use of prison for low-risk offenders (over 55 percent of New Zealand’s sentenced prisoners have minimum or low security classifications). It is an initiative well worth further investigation.
Christine McCarthy is a senior lecturer in the Wellington School of Architecture at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and a former president of the Wellington Howard League for Penal Reform.