Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: A complex picture behind prison bars

Judith Collins' announcement that another $1 billion has to be spent housing an extra 1800 prisoners in the next four years points to a major failure.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins' announcement that another $1 billion has to be spent housing an extra 1800 prisoners in the next four years points to a major failure. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Key this week recalled the shock he felt when Simon Power privately told him he would be retiring from politics after just one term as Justice Minister.

Key had seen him as a future Prime Minister. Clearly Power was not prepared for a long wait and became a banking executive.

Hekia Parata has decided that two terms is enough and if she is lucky, Key will let her stay at her Education post for as long as possible to see through her reforms.

Power's decision came as a bigger shock - that someone who had spent nine years in Opposition planning what he would do on law and order in Government would go after just one term.

Law and order was a big theme as National came into Government in 2008.
That was the last time it was a major election issue.

Phil Goff's fairly tough approach to law and order as Justice Minister neutralised it for much of Labour's term.

Power was a liberal through and through, and Act became the law-and-order party with its three-strikes policy - although its emphasis on crime has waned since it has become the incredible shrinking party.

But the current confluence of law and order issues suggests it could become a new battleground.

Police numbers, the failures of Serco as private mangers of prisons, the increase in violent crime and the expansion of the prison population are just some of them.

One factor that will put off Labour, however, is Judith Collins, who has been back in control of Corrections and Police for almost a year.

She is a formidable fighter and. even when she is losing, any opponent risks looking soft on law and order.

She presided over a veritable failure this week but emerged largely unscathed.

Her announcement that another $1 billion has to be spent housing an extra 1800 prisoners in the next four years points to a major failure - although of exactly what is arguable.

Sympathy must go to Finance Minister Bill English who must rueing the day he ever called prisons "a moral and fiscal failure" and predicted that Wiri would be the last new prison he had to build.

A climbing prison population represents a general failure in the general fight against crime citizens expect their governments to wage.

That is why the prison announcement on Tuesday was prefaced by John Key on Monday announcing a $15 million boost to the fight fund against methamphetamine.

A closer analysis of the specific targets the Government has set itself under the Better Public Services umbrella show that it has had some successes and some failures.

Judith Collins is a formidable fighter and, even when she is losing, any opponent risks looking soft on law and order.

It may have set itself too many targets in the crime area. They are: To reduce violent crime by 20 per cent and youth crime by 25 per cent by Junes 2017; to reduce total crime by 20 per cent by June 2018; and to reduce re-offending by 25 per cent by June 2017.

The targets for all areas expire next year or the year after and are all under review.

With the benefit of hindsight, its next targets are likely to skewed towards success. Take recidivism. The number of recidivists has fallen by 25 per cent, for example, but recidivism has fallen by only 6.8 per cent, meaning fewer criminals are reoffending but the really bad ones are re-offending more.

Not a complete success but not a complete failure.

Labour leader Andrew Little this week derided the Government for setting a "blunt meaningless target" on recidivism. It is not likely to be a fruitful line of criticism if the general trend is in the right direction.

But when the general trend is a rise in violent crime and a rise in the prison muster, its successes are overshadowed.

Two big drivers of the rising prison population are prosecutions related to drugs and to family violence.

It is a direct consequence of more resources and greater focus on tackling those scourges.

One of the biggest failures in the need for a new prison is a failure of the public service's powers of prediction.

The remand prison population increased 19 per cent which is mostly attributable to the Bail Amendment Act 2013 - a bill which required defendants charged with serious offences to prove why they should get bail, instead of requiring the Crown to prove why they shouldn't.

Justice officials estimated at the time it would add 50 beds a year to the prison muster. They now say it is actually 400 to 500.

If the cabinet had known that at the time, it may have thought a lot harder before approving it.

The irony is that it was Judith Collins' bill so she is reaping as Corrections Minister what she pushed through as Justice Minister.

But it was in response to a disturbing reality: In the five years to 2010, 23 people on bail went on to commit murder, 763 committed sex crimes and 7146 committed acts with the intent of injuring other people.

And while the bill had plenty of opponents among civil libertarians and the Law Society, it was supported by the Labour Party.

It had concerns but it could not afford to be seen as soft on law and order.

That is Labour's dilemma. It is outflanked by the Greens on the liberal side and by New Zealand First as the hardline party.

Most people could not even name Labour's spokesperson (it's Jacinda Ardern).

National's fear is not so much that law and order becomes a political target but that its social investment approach does.

National MPs launched a pre-emptive defence on social investment in Parliament's general debate this week.

The approach is inextricably linked with tackling rising crime - it directs extra Government funding only to programmes that are proven to work such as those successfully rehabilitating prisoners, treating drug and alcohol addiction and tackling family violence.

It sounds like an approach that Labour should embrace, but that has not yet happened.

You can't blame it for wanting to find battlegrounds over points of agreements. But it needs to pick fights it can win and that is hard when it comes to social investment.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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