First offenders need help, not a couple of semesters in a crime academy.

There's nothing like a Rugby World Cup and an election to get the competitive juices flowing. Not content with seeking the world rugby crown, our political masters seem to be making a concerted effort to become world champions of locking people up.

Crying babies beware. This week we're told prisons in Auckland and Christchurch have been adapted to take toddlers up to the age of 2.

A few days before, 20-year-old Jason Godsiff was jailed for two years by the Blenheim District Court for clubbing 23 seals to death near Kaikoura last November. It was the first scalp for the law and order crusaders who had pushed through harsher penalties for animal cruelty in Parliament last year.

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Without trying to play down the awfulness of his actions, in a more rational world, the smarter response to his bizarre behaviour would have been to sentence him to psychological or psychiatric help.

His pre-sentence report noted he had no previous record of wrongdoing and, according to his lawyer, was vulnerable to forming views based on others rather than forming his own. He looked up to his older companion in what he says was an act of "culling".

Godsiff will be out of jail after one year under our strange sentencing policy, which doesn't mean what it says, but it will still have cost the taxpayer around $100,000 for his board and lodgings. While inside he'll receive no counselling or "treatment" teaching him that what he did was wrong. Experts say that animal abuse is often a sign that the perpetrator is the victim of abuse themselves, or possibly a future offender. Shoving him in jail is not going to help society on that score one iota.

In court, his lawyer said his client was vulnerable to forming views based on others. It's a point highlighted in 2007 by the present Justice Minister Simon Power. As opposition spokesman on law and order, he warned of the dangers of locking up youngsters such as Godsiff.

Addressing the National Party conference in Auckland, he said: "Placing a young first-time offender into the adult criminal system would be like sending a hungry mind to an academy of crime." He said "we have to show we are not devoid of compassion and ideas when there's a chance to turn their lives around".

Noting the increased intensity of crimes being committed by first offenders, he said it pointed "to something missing in the development of the offender, and that is empathy".

What a shame that Simon Power the Justice Minister hasn't retained the wisdom espoused by Simon Power, National's law and order spokesman. The earlier Mr Power might have suggested it would have been more productive for society and Godsiff alike not to send him to a year's free tuition at a state-run "academy of crime".

Better, perhaps, to have sent him off to work with the Department of Conservation and get some empathy with the natural world. There he'd be able to learn to differentiate between the animals that were on DoC's cull-at-all-costs list - possums, rats, stoats, etc - and which were not.

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He'd learn that clubbing seals was wrong, but poisoning pests with 1080 was okay, and that the whole issue of animal welfare was an ethical minefield, laced with dollops of hypocrisy.

Green MP Sue Kedgley highlighted this in last year's debate on the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill which upped the penalties for animal cruelty.

"We remain deeply disappointed that the provisions of this bill do not apply to the literally millions of animals that suffer from animal cruelty on a daily basis as a result of farming practices such as sow crates and battery hen cages," she said.

Society is right to express its opposition to acts of animal cruelty. But falling back on the old failed recipe of incarceration is an expensive non-answer. All it does is help politicians appeal to a certain class of voter.

Even Treasury, not known as a hotbed of whimpering liberalism, called for a rethink in its November 2009 report, Challenges and Choices. It noted that imprisonment rates per 100,000 had risen from 150 in 1999 to 195 in 2009 and "under current policy settings this rate is forecast to reach 225 by 2017". Our incarceration rates are "significantly higher than rates in Australia, England, Ireland and Canada" and within the OECD, are surpassed only by Mexico, the Czech Republic, Poland and the United States.

Noting that locking more people up had little effect on recorded crime rates, the Treasury concluded that "investing in reducing the number of people who enter the criminal justice system would likely provide better value for money".