A WEEK AGO there was an article in the Wanganui Chronicle celebrating the fact Community Education Whanganui was going to be doing more work in prisons.

Thank goodness over recent years there has been a greater emphasis on using the time inmates are in custody to ensure they don't come back - or at least leave prison in better nick than when they came in.

But who will educate the masses outside prisons who dictate the politics, the prejudice and then the policy around our justice system?

Education seems to be the answer to most of society's problems. The fact people choose to remain ignorant or unchallenged on their favourite hobby-horses is over to them but we should never let ignorance get in the road of justice, fairness or government policy.

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Yet it seems we have been happy to do this for long enough for the sake of political expediency.

The best prisons work when they are part of a community but it is difficult to create a community feel to prisons when large chunks of the community would rather not know the prison exists let alone admit they know anybody inside or close to it.

The recently released report of the Prime Minister's Chief Scientist Sir Peter Gluckman and Dr Ian Lambie examines the need for evidence-based policy and the challenges of rising costs in prisons.

The fact is all of the decisions which have ramped up prison populations to the current high of 11,000 people in jail - not counting the about 4000 on home detention and electronically monitored bail - have not been evidence-based but politically motivated, either to win or at least not lose votes.

There can be no other explanation when those appearing before the courts are at a 30-year low and reflect that we have the lowest crime rates since the last 1970s. How can we let this incongruity between evidence and prison population continue and still call ourselves "first world"?

The answer is because the New Zealanders would rather remain stoically ignorant of the reasons for offending and the evidence-based need and reasons for incarceration - they never care until they have friends or family before the court. It is then that scales fall off and genuine consideration is given on an individual basis of crime and punishment in all its flavours and colours and, most importantly, the options and alternatives.

Imagine if the political heat was taken out of the law and order debate. Imagine if media did not pursue the "if it bleeds, it leads" policy and if the public decided to become informed on these issues.

Wouldn't it be more fitting in a first world country to give a clear mandate to politicians that we will be evidence-based and not emotions-based in our justice policy?

What if we agreed to look behind offending to understand the reasons for it and what protections can be put around those who grow up to be victims and offenders, because they are largely the same people. If we decided to imprison those we need to be kept safe from and not just those who annoy us by being on the street.

With 91 per cent of prisoners with a diagnosed mental health condition or a substance dependence, wouldn't it be a good idea to define what was health-related and what was crime-related?

Spending $150 million on in-prison rehabilitation but only $20 million on post-release rehabilitation seems out of whack as the prison environment is so much more controlled and in no way reflects the environment outside where rehabilitation efforts will surely be tested and proven.

And the biggest elephant in the room is Maori over-representation.

If Maori were incarcerated at the same rate as pakeha there would only be 700 Maori in prison, but there are 5400. If we are the utopia for race relations that most of us would consider ourselves, how can such disparity exist?

A cross-sector accord which takes the political parties, the media heat, and the rhetoric out but allows the science and psychology into the debate is the only way to have sensible justice policy.

*Chester Borrows served as Whanganui MP for 12 years and as a minister in the National Government.