COMMENT:

Italy has been good enough to road-test Andrew Little's proposals to cut the prison population by 30 per cent. Italy has mass pardons of prisoners.

If you believe as Andrew Little appears to do, that prisons are a training academy for criminals, and longer sentences increase reoffending because prisoners are released even more brutalised by prison, releasing prisoners immediately in a mass pardon tests your ideas about deterrence versus brutalisation.

A mass pardon immediately frees prisoners from that brutalisating training ground for further crime — and makes clear what will happen if a lot fewer criminals are in prison today versus yesterday.

Advertisement

Does locking up criminals reduce crime simply by keeping them off the streets?

In its unexpected mass pardon in 2006 to reduce prison overcrowding Italy released one third of its prisoners, those with less than three years to serve, but with a twist. If they reoffended within five years, they would serve the remainder of their old sentence too.

Those who were facing up to 36 months more in prison if they reoffended, reoffended less than those with as little as a month hanging over their heads. Each prison-year served prevented between 14 and 46 crimes, mostly theft and to a lesser degree, robbery.

There were eight earlier Italian mass pardons between 1962 and 1990, releasing up to 35 per cent of prisoners.

They showed that when fewer criminals were in prison there were crime waves and that longer prison terms put ex-prisoners off reoffending. Andrew Little believes the exact opposite will happen if there are fewer prisoner in our prisons despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Newly elected French and Korean presidents granted mass pardons for recent speeding and parking offences. Road chaos resulted. An acquaintance who worked in Paris saved up his parking tickets.

When 35 per cent of the Oregon state highway patrol were laid off, road deaths and injuries rose by 10-20 per cent. Deterrence works.

Many assume illiteracy, addiction, mental illness and low IQs make criminals shortsighted and more likely to offend. If criminals have trouble weighing up the future, tougher bail laws are a good thing. If criminals are shortsighted and lack self-control, then rapid arrest and remand dulls the lure of instant gratification and impulsive reoffending.

Advertisement

Tougher bail laws bring prison into more immediate view.

The economic and sociology literatures unite on the idea that an immediate penalty such as quick arrest and fast commitment to prison, even for a brief time, is a solid deterrent.

There is much more debate about whether longer sentences deter, but good agreement that immediate prison time deters. The deterrent effect of prison bites faster and harder.

Time on remand counts towards the final sentence, so prison musters are swelled by tougher bail laws only for the 20 per cent on remand found not guilty at a trial.

Criminals are so gullible they think CSI is real. DNA testing has seen a reduction in reoffending far greater than any reasonable impact DNA science could have had on policing. A 2017 study in the US found the roll-out of DNA swabs of prisoners — first for serious offences, then lesser offences, and now for arrestees in 30 of the 50 states — reduced reoffending by 17 per cent for serious violent offenders and 6 per cent for property offenders.

Bigger prison populations deserve some credit for murder rates and crime in general in the US halving since 1991. On the softer side of the coin, violent and property crime have increased by so much in Europe despite generous welfare states, shorter prison terms and nicely appointed prisons that crime rates apart from homicide are worse in Europe than in the US.

A knife crime explosion recently allowed London to overtake New York City in murder rates despite America having plenty of criminals with guns.

Longer sentences deter crime. Teaching prisoners to read reduces reoffending.

Charter schools and 90-day employment trials give another chance to teenagers and adults who fell off the rails.

For as long as we have unsolved murders, rapes and robberies the prison muster will be too small.

• Jim Rose is an economic consultant in Wellington.