This week I was contacted by an old flatmate with whom I shared a rumpty house in the 1990s. It was a fairly squalid phase of my life: a typical weekend involved staying up all night then doing a spot of weeding whilst still wearing a sequined evening dress, and stumbling to Andiamo for Thai chicken curry and Heineken. For breakfast. I think we all had drug and alcohol "issues", frankly.
When the flat split up, this particular flatmate still owed me some rent. I hadn't really seen him since then but had heard he had been clean and sober for almost a decade. Now he was writing to say he wanted to settle the debt. I had long ago forgotten about the money but I was extremely grateful for the message. Funny, I got it the same day as the big hullabaloo about disgraced All Black Zac Guildford.
Guildford had just issued an apology for his behaviour in Rarotonga and admitted he needed help. This statement seemed to be greeted with a round of approval. No one seemed to be saying he needed to be locked up and written off, even though he had apparently committed a criminal act.
I was struck by the contrast between the reaction to Guildford and that meted out by this National Government to run-of-the-mill "criminals". Make no mistake: it is them-and-us when it comes to crime and punishment. If you are middle-class with alcohol and drug problems, you are worthy of compassion and need help to turn your life around. If, however, you happen to come from a working class or underclass background, you are a write-off and should be locked up forever. Never mind that addicts from deprived backgrounds usually have such grim experiences of abuse that their addictions are practically inevitable.
National does not seem to see this double standard. It has run an increasingly punitive law and order policy which seems to have been ghost-written by the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Any talk about rehabilitation is written off as woolly-pully girls' blousiness, despite the fact that addressing recidivism makes sound financial sense as we have some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking estimates that 90 per cent of prisoners here have drug or alcohol problems but just 5 per cent get the treatment they need. "The justice system has become a vicious cycle and it recycles all these alcohol and drug-related offenders and keeps them locked in the system," Brooking said.
The Department of Corrections disputes Brooking's figure but, regardless, the idea of therapy is decidedly out of favour. I may be a bit of a Madeline Bassett (who believes the stars are God's daisy chain), but I've sometimes wondered what would happen if you took a random criminal and assembled a dream team to mentor them: Oprah on speed dial, say, and John Kirwan and Nigel Latta and Greg Newbold and Phil Keoghan and 12-step people and a dietician and an image consultant. Would you have a decent shot at changing their life? Of course, some people are so damaged they have no empathy and can never change. But not everyone in prison is like that. If Zac Guildford gets another chance, how about extending the possibility of redemption to a few others who might become functioning members of society, if not exactly All Blacks?
* Illustration by Anna Crichton: firstname.lastname@example.org