Public service cuts: Big changes to win savings in justice

By Derek Cheng

Mt Eden Prison. Photo / Martin Sykes
Mt Eden Prison. Photo / Martin Sykes

Fewer crimes, fewer court cases, fewer prisoners. That is the focus of the justice sector, and achieving it will not only make the public safer, but also save money.

The sector has been a success story in recent years, with falling reported crime rates, forecasts of lower prisoner numbers and reform in court processes.

But the question remains whether these successes are a turning point or just a twist in long-term trends that previously predicted crime and prisoner numbers spiralling out of control.

And can the sector keep those gains - let alone build on them - with the expectation of no new money in coming years?

Police, the Corrections Department and the Justice Ministry spent more than $3.1 billion in the last financial year.

Police are investing heavily in technology - including smartphones and iPad-type tablets - to keep staff in the field as much as possible to give a high- visibility presence and prevent crime.

But the pressure to stay within the existing baseline has seen every police district asked to find 5 per cent savings, and national headquarters and police college asked to find 15 per cent. Recruitment wings have already been postponed until at least this month.

The spending bill for Corrections has more than doubled since 2004-05 to cater for a burgeoning prison population and the number of community-based offenders more than doubling.

But the decrease in the projected prison muster is allowing Corrections to focus less on finding the next prison bed and more on rehabilitation.

"Through to 2020, the focus is for more of our investment into lifting participation rates in education, training or employment," said Corrections chief executive Ray Smith.

He points to more resources including six new drug dogs and 50 more case managers, who assess prisoners as they enter prison.

"It's becoming more targeted. Drug dogs work so let's have more of those."

In 2010, the department set a target of $131 million in savings over four years, but Mr Smith says that is being revised in a review that is due in the middle of the year.

Reoffending and re-imprisonment rates have risen in the past five years, and the acid test will be whether these will start falling. The signs have been encouraging - the 12-month re-imprisonment and re-conviction rates upon release both fell slightly in 2011, bucking the trend. The drop in the prison muster forecast also means that the proposed private-public Wiri prison in South Auckland - which the Cabinet is still to approve - is less of a necessity.

Corrections has outsourced cleaning services as well as the management of Mt Eden Prison and inmate transport in Auckland.

Savings have also been flagged by merging the accounting, payroll and IT services in the justice sector.

The Justice Ministry is looking to save $29 million in the next financial year - $5 million of that is to fund the staff superannuation scheme, which was previously provided by the State Services Commission.

One challenge is to bring the cost of legal aid under control, partly through fixed fees and means-testing for applicants charged with less-serious crimes. The changes seek to cut the bill by $42.3 million in the next five years.

THE SNAPSHOT

* Recorded crime fell 6.8 per cent in the past financial year, against the previous year.

* In 2008, the projected prison muster for 2016 was 11,561. Now it is projected to be about 8200 - 500 fewer than the current muster.

* More use of police discretion for low-level crime and an overhaul of the courts system - including higher thresholds for jury trials - should reduce the number of court cases.

* Audio-visual links will enable faster court cases and less use of costly and risky prisoner transport.

- NZ Herald

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