Live Chat: How can we fix our prison system?

By Sarah Kuper

JustSpeak is a youth advocacy group dedicated to justice system reform. Photo / Getty Images
JustSpeak is a youth advocacy group dedicated to justice system reform. Photo / Getty Images

What will New Zealand look like in 2025? With a host of challenges such as climate change, an ageing population, inequality, our economic resilience, and increased pressure on our land, air and water, the only certainty is that we will have to do things differently. We can no longer look at wellbeing through the narrow lens of GDP growth. To see genuine progress, and genuine prosperity, we have to look at progress in broader social, environmental and economic terms.

Over the coming weeks, Element and the Centre for NZ Progress will host conversations to explore what real progress means to New Zealanders. Each week we will focus on a different issue under the four streams of economic, social, environmental and democratic progress.

We will hear the ideas of a diverse collection of thinkers, experts and leaders, from New Zealand and around the world, and we will create a space for you to share your ideas.

Join today's author Sarah Kuper from 5-6pm tonight ahead of the release of JustSpeak's report Unlocking Prisons on Tuesday June 24.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

As it currently stands, our criminal justice system is failing on a number of fronts. The justice process leaves many victims feeling even more disempowered, offenders are often released from prison only to commit more serious offences, and time after time we see the system fail our children.

One issue that intersects all of these problems is New Zealand's high level of incarceration. If we want a safer society with less crime and less harm, we need to address our prison problem.

Although prison may be necessary to protect the community from particularly violent and serious offenders, it is in many cases a drain on valuable resources and actually increases the risk offenders pose to society in the long term.

Whilst imprisonment limits opportunities to offend for a limited time period, public safety is put at risk if on release prisoners are even less qualified for employment and more likely to offend than when they were convicted.

As the recent Glenn Inquiry report into child abuse and domestic violence noted, "far from addressing unacceptable ways of functioning, prisons are instead a potent learning environment whereby perpetrators learn more 'tricks' and become angrier".

Time and time again prison fails to address the underlying issues that lead to offending, and empirical studies have shown that prison exerts little - if any - deterrent effect on future offending.

Imprisoning an offender costs approximately $97,090 a year, money which could equally be spent on more effective rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, on victims, and on investment in initiatives that tackle the numerous drivers of crime.

It's not hard then to see why the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Bill English, has described out current prison system as a "moral and fiscal failure".

Although the law provides that prison "is a measure of last resort", prisons have been normalised; our prison population continues to grow despite dropping crime rates.

As at 31 March 2014, New Zealand's prison population sat at 8520 people. For a country of only 4.5 million people, this is an appallingly high rate of incarceration, and is one of the highest in the western world. Of countries with comparable justice systems, only the United States imprisons more people.

Recognition of both the moral and fiscal futility of prison as well as its ineffectiveness at reducing reoffending has not, however, translated into tangible political action to change the current system.

To see real progress, we need to replace the current tendency for knee-jerk responses to particularly abhorrent crimes with a more considered research and results based approach. This approach should focus on reducing reoffending and have input from all that intersects with the criminal justice system, including victims and their families.

Addressing the causes of offending

Strong correlations exist between issues such as poverty, mental health, addiction, lack of education and crime.  Despite knowledge of this, we persist with attempts to manage crime by extending the punitive interventions of the criminal justice system rather than addressing the problem at its source. For example, although the vast majority of the 20,000 people who spend time in our prisons each year have drug and alcohol problems, less than 1000 of them will receive any form of drug or alcohol treatment. To alter entrenched inappropriate behaviours and attitudes requires tailored programmes and significantly expanded access to health care, addiction rehabilitation programmes and Specialist Treatment Units.

Some positive progress is, however, being made. Specialist courts such as Alcohol and Other Drugs Courts, Family Violence Courts, and Special Circumstances Courts are helping make the system more responsive to the underlying causes of offending such as substance abuse and homelessness. Rangatahi Courts (a marae-based Youth Court process) and Maori Focus Units in prisons are increasing the system's responsiveness to the needs of Maori.

The use of restorative justice conferences, where appropriate, is also making the criminal justice process more meaningful for victims, and communities and forces offenders to face up to the consequences of their offending.

The evidence to date suggests that these processes are working, but these initiatives need to be adequately funded and made available nationwide.

Illiteracy, limited education, and lack of employment records continue to limit prisoners' options upon release. Released prisoners without a home or any source of income find themselves stuck in a pattern of offending. The attitudes of those on the outside can also mean that the effects of prison last long after an inmate is released. Successful reintegration of former prisoners into the community through education, industry training, work release programmes, and employment support upon release is necessary not only if we want to reduce reoffending but also if we want to reduce the cycle of intergenerational incarceration that currently exists for the some 20,000 New Zealand children who have a parent in prison.

Alternatives to prison

Research has shown that for the majority of offenders (particularly those serving short-term sentence), the objectives of prison can be achieved as effectively, if not more so, by alternative means.

Community-based rehabilitation programmes have proved to be vastly more effective at reducing re-offending, than those offered in prison. Remaining in the community means offenders face real-world challenges that require them to apply the skills and knowledge they are simultaneously acquiring in programmes.

Community-based sentences are also significantly cheaper. By way of example, it is four times more expensive to send someone to prison than to manage a sentence of home detention, and those sentenced to home detention are much less likely to reoffend. Nevertheless, home detention and community detention are still used less often than imprisonment.

Progress in our criminal justice system

It is critical that we acknowledge the limitations of our present system and our need for a substantial change of direction if we are going to address the "moral and fiscal failure" that is our prison system.

This is not about a "tough" or "soft" approach. We know that our current prison system is not providing all the answers. Whilst some offenders commit very serious offences or pose such a high risk that necessitates the great expenditure involved in imprisonment, for many, prison is a waste of resources, and escalates both the likelihood and the gravity of their reoffending in the future. Like domestic violence and child abuse, what we do to make real progress in criminal justice is a problem that needs to be talked about by all New Zealanders.

There are a huge number of alternatives to prison, as well as options for improving existing structures. We need to see a real commitment to research and investment in interventions that are proven to work if we genuinely want to move towards a future with less crime, fewer victims and safer communities.

We should ask the question whether we as a nation seriously believe that increased incarceration rates will result in anything more than a hardened criminal subculture.

Sarah Kuper is a member of JustSpeak, a youth advocacy group committed to seeing positive change in New Zealand's criminal justice system. She believes that it is critically important to hear from young people in order to open up the criminal justice debate and effect change in an area that is all too often neglected from meaningful scrutiny.

JustSpeak will be launching a comprehensive report, "Unlocking Prisons - How we can improve New Zealand's prison system", on Tuesday, 24 June at 6pm at Allpress Gallery, 8 Drake Street, Freemans Bay, Auckland.

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