Judith Collins: Explaining the record high prison population

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

The rise in the prison population has received a lot of attention lately and some people have questioned the increase against the backdrop of a falling crime rate. Some have also suggested that the wrong people are in prison, that prison is full of traffic or non-violent offenders.

That is simply not the case.

Numerous factors additional to the crime rate contribute to the prison population, such as sentencing trends, recidivism rates, and seriousness of offending.

We don't send people to prison lightly in New Zealand. The vast majority of offenders who come before the courts receive sentences in the community (such as community work, supervision or home detention). Also, people tend to be sentenced to prison only once all alternative sentence options have been tried and have failed.

Violent offending is the most common offence that results in a prison sentence. These offenders are sent to prison to keep our communities safe.

The prison population has increased steadily since the early 1980s. There was a 70 per cent increase between 1995 and 2007 with periods of slight decreases or stabilisation since then.

However since 2014, the prison population has increased again, leading to record highs throughout 2015 and early 2016. In August last year, the prison population hit 9,000 for the first time. Since then it has continued to rise, peaking at 9,360 in February this year.

The increase since 2014 has mostly been driven by the increase in the remand population.

Between February 2014 and 2016, the remand population increased by approximately 40% and remand prisoners accounted for around 90 per cent of the population increase in the last year.

The significant increase in offenders on remand is due to a number of factors including changes to the Bail, Sentencing and Victim's Rights Acts. Additionally, Police are placing even greater emphasis on keeping victims of family violence safe by seeking more custody remand for perpetrators of family violence. This means family violence offenders- who may be especially volatile following arrest- are not being released back into the community, putting their victims at risk.

Whilst the remand population has increased rapidly the sentenced population has actually remained fairly stable since 2009, increasing by less than 2 per cent. But those that are sent to prison are staying for longer.

So fewer people are being sent to prison but those who are sentenced to prison are serving more of their sentence so they are not able to commit as much crime. This may be a significant factor in the fall in the crime rate.

Serious violent offenders are also receiving longer sentences than in the past. That's good. It keeps them off the streets for longer. That means fewer victims.

Corrections is about to release the 2014/15 Offender Population Report which provides a breakdown of the prison population. It shows us that violent offending is the most common offence resulting in a prison offence.

On any given day, 38 per cent of prisoners are serving a sentence for a violent offence, the most common offence resulting in a prison sentence. The other most common offender groups are sex offenders, who account for about 25 per cent of prisoners, serious drug offenders (13 per cent) and burglars (11 per cent).

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Family violence is a substantial feature of violent offending, representing around 50-60 percent of all offenders sentenced for violent or sexual offences. It is estimated that in 2014/15, 57 per cent of all sexual and violent offenders imprisoned had a family violence offence as the most serious offence. Police attend over 100,000 events of family violence each year and family violence accounts for 41 per cent of frontline police time.

Corrections has a number of programmes available to prisoners to address family violence. These include a family violence programme, designed specifically for men with family violence offences; the Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme, which aims to help men manage their emotions, conflicts and relationships; and the Short Rehabilitation Programme which helps men and women prisoners examine the cause of their offending and develop skills to reduce the likelihood of them re-offending.

The highest-risk, more serious violent offenders serving longer prison sentences, many of whom are family violence offenders, are placed in special treatment units where they undergo intensive rehabilitation programmes lasting around nine months. These programmes have an excellent record in reducing rates of reoffending.

While our prisons are full of perpetrators of family violence, many of these individuals were themselves also victims of family violence as children, and some as adults. Tragically, the cycle is repeated through generations and as a country we must to more to address it. But we also have a responsibility to keep current victims safe.

Keeping offenders in prison is expensive, but it's important that these very serious violent offenders are treated as such if we are to reduce the number of victims.

Gang members are also heavily represented in the prison population. Close to one third of the prison population are active gang members Gang offenders re-offend at twice the rate of non-gang offenders, and with increasing seriousness.

The increase in the prison population is being monitored and managed.

Corrections is experienced in managing a fluctuating prisoner population. I am confident it can implement practical solutions to address the immediate demands, without any impact on the safety of staff or the public, and the security of prisons.

Last year the 960-bed Auckland South Corrections Facility opened in Wiri which has gone some way towards easing the muster pressure. Double-bunking is another option, which has worked well in New Zealand. About 30 per cent of the Zealand prison population is double-bunked, compared with 70 per cent to 80 per cent in South Australia. New units can also be added to existing prisons.

Over the last five years Corrections has been modernising its sites, with a focus on security, safety and rehabilitation. Some older units have closed and other units have been out of use while essential work is carried out. This has also reduced the number of beds available at any given time. Another 270 prison beds will become available from April when renovations at various prisons are completed.

Corrections is continually looking at options to maximise capacity at prison sites around New Zealand to cope with the extra prisoner numbers. As always, safety is the number one consideration.

Finally, it is important to point out that while the prison population is increasing, there will still be an emphasis on rehabilitation, including education and employment, drug and alcohol treatment and other programmes which will help to reduce re-offending and keep the public safe.

Hon Judith Collins is MP for Papakura, Minister of Corrections and Minister of Police.

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