The Government's proposal to close courts and shift registries to nearby towns is another welcome sign that crime is on the wane. One of the most intractable policy challenges for the state is starting to pay a dividend. The multibillion-dollar budget for crime and punishment has been growing for years, but a co-ordinated response by key agencies is slowing that increase and now turning down the grim numbers that bedevilled governments for decades.
Police statistics of reported crimes have fallen for two years in a row. Proudly, the Prime Minister boasted that reduction in crime was the reason police had time to investigate his complaint over the "teapot" taping saga. Separately, the number of cases going before the courts has reduced substantially in the past three years. The number of people being sent to prison is down and the projected total jail muster is expected to plateau and then fall soon. So marked is this downturn that the Department of Corrections has already earmarked prisons for closure despite long-term planning that anticipated hundreds of millions of taxes going towards new facilities.
A criminal justice working group involving the heads of justice, police and corrections has tried to co-ordinate government policies to replace crime's vicious circle with the more virtuous example we are now beginning to see.
Police claim to be acting proactively in communities to target hotspots and prevent offences. Some legal changes have helped the courts deal with caseloads and community sentences are easing the prison population. The savings, or more correctly reduced extra spending, from all of these measures will be considerable.
Now the Courts Minister has moved to meet the reduced demand on the courts by cutting the total number of court houses and reducing others' opening hours. Towns such as Warkworth and, on the West Coast, Whataroa, will lose their seldom-used courts and those needing their services will be required to front at North Shore or Greymouth. Whataroa had just 11 hours of sitting time last year. As well as streamlining the costs of low-use courts, the Government will move some functions online with a goal of cutting 90,000 hours of effort between court and police staff. Courts Minister Chester Borrows also talks of defendants being able to deal with the court from their lawyers' officers by Skype. In a damp economy the need for innovative ways of saving taxpayer dollars is all the greater.