The battle lines are drawn on crime and justice reform and Minister of Justice Andrew Little is in a bunker.

It's not a great place for a first-term minister but the National Party has driven him there by virtue of how it has stolen a march on precious territory over contested ground.

The struggle Little faces is over possible changes to bail, parole and sentencing laws.

Labour had pledged to cut the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years and Little has talked of possible changes to those laws.

Advertisement

To meet that target, experts in the field agree those laws will need to be changed.
In the past two weeks, the NZ Herald has asked Little's office on four occasions for interviews on proposed changes.

On three occasions, Little's office has assured that he will call. On each of those occasions, he has not.

CRIME & JUSTICE
The politics of crime - how the hunt for votes filled our prisons
Andrew Little: 'Longer sentences, more prisoners - it doesn't work'
Big Read: Justice path and bulging prisons - will NZ listen to scientist or sceptic?
Mum of murdered teen says 'heal young criminals but keep deadly killers in jail'

The National Party, meanwhile, is extremely happy to speak and appears to have nailed down the message it wants the public to hear.

Interviews with leader Simon Bridges and Corrections spokesman David Bennett have seen the National Party politicians repeatedly refer to the Government considering changes to bail, parole and sentencing laws.

It was a possibility Little raised early in the debate around criminal justice reform.
While he might not wish to talk about it now, the National Party will do so - and its message is in lock-step across MPs.

National Party leader Simon Bridges has warnings of dire consequences from plans the Government has yet to announce. Photo / Peter de Graaf
National Party leader Simon Bridges has warnings of dire consequences from plans the Government has yet to announce. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Bridges: "He has to reduce the prison population by a third because he's not building the prison beds and that really leads inevitably to a softening up of the bail, sentencing, parole laws."

Bennett: "If they are going to relax those bail and sentencing laws and parole laws they should front up to the NZ public now."

In forecasting those changes, those politicians have forecast what they say is the human cost if those changes are made. There has been no evidence presented to support these statements.

Bridges: "If the bail-sentencing-parole laws are softened up, there will be many more victims of crime that (Little) and Jacinda Ardern will be responsible for."

Bennett: "They're talking about relaxing the laws which would be to early release offenders. They are going to release criminals into the community and put victims and other potential victims at risk".

Over the past 20 years, both Labour and National have responded to a public "tough on crime" appetite by ramping up bail, parole and sentencing laws.

Those law changes have led to more people in prison for what has been shown to have little actual impact on crime rates or public safety. Meanwhile, the cost of our prison system in that time has rocketed from $382 million a year to $1.3 billion.

In that time, New Zealand has moved to imprison more people than comparable nations by a considerable margin while enjoying lower rates of crime. Oddly, New Zealand feels less safe than comparable nations - it sits in the bottom third of OECD nations in which people feel safe walking alone at night.

The problems were explicitly described by Sir Peter Gluckman, then-Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, in a report released in March this year: Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs.

The report, built on more than 150 pieces of solid research, described how crime and justice policy in the past 30 years had been driven by lobby groups, media and politicians.

The report stated: "Successive governments of different political orientations have supported a progressively retributive rather than a restorative approach to crime with unsupported claims that prisons can solve the problems of crime."

New Zealand's prison population has soared although data shows tougher laws after high-profile events did nothing to deter people from committing crime. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand's prison population has soared although data shows tougher laws after high-profile events did nothing to deter people from committing crime. Photo / Supplied

"Tough on crime" was simplistic, he said, and there was no genuine link between crime rates and the rate of imprisonment.

"As a result, the costs of prisons far exceed those justified by the need to protect the public."

Prisons were "extremely expensive training grounds for further offending", he said. New Zealand had sent people inside where they learned to be better criminals, and while there made it more difficult for those people to get jobs on release, or find housing or maintain families.

This made mental health and substance abuse issues worse, with around 91 per cent of those in prison having a "lifetime diagnosable mental illness or substance-use disorder".
Gluckman's report, and overwhelming academic evidence, offered little positive about prison.

Even former National Party leader Bill English said in 2011, before he became prime minister, said: "Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure. And building more of them on a large scale is something I don't think any New Zealander wants to see."

Bridges, when asked about those comments, said: "Everyone that goes to prison is a failure for themselves and ultimately for society. If your point is we're somehow out of kilter with the rest of the world, I don't accept that."

Bennett, asked if new prisons were inevitable, said: "Under the current settings, yes. The only way you would change that is if you had a major change in settings and that puts people at risk out in the community because they would have to relax the laws around who's in prison and then do early release of prisoners to release those targets."

Their position is Little is lining the community up to be targeted by people they say should be in prison.

In doing so, that creates the space in which Little and his hopes for reform are at the greatest risk.

If, through Little's changes, there are people in the community who would currently be in jail then eventually one of those people will reoffend in a way which will make front-page news.

At that point, National's talking points will have real victims - and that one extra person among roughly 270,000 victims of crime annually will lead to sharp political questions.

Will Bridges say Little has blood on his hands? "It's not about that kind of cheap shot but it is about the real consequences of his actions as minister over all."

If that single event can be used to typify what is happening, it fits with Gluckman's autopsy of how New Zealand wound up with such a high prison rate.

Gluckman said: "The prison population has been amplified by criminal-justice system settings ... which are led by government policy, which, in turn, is often in response to political and media debate around a specific crime event."

Sir Peter Gluckman's report on our prison system in March 2018 bluntly stated
Sir Peter Gluckman's report on our prison system in March 2018 bluntly stated "tough of crime" policies did not work. Photo / Dean Purcell

Translation: One single event propelled by media into the political arena leads to law change which leads to a bursting prison population.

It occurred in 2002 when parole and sentencing laws were changed, leading to increases in the prison population. And again after the murder of Christie Marceau, 18, which made bail harder to achieve.

If Little were to change the law to make bail easier, sentencing smarter and parole more obtainable, then it would put to the test Gluckman's research that the rate of imprisonment is not linked to crime rates.

Gluckman's report said crime and justice needed "evidence-based approaches to prevention, intervention, imprisonment and rehabilitation".

Gluckman said New Zealand's pattern was "imprisoning more people in response to dogma not data".

Facts and research are on Little's side - that's the data. Claims made by National struggle under close analysis. Yet public opinion has not shifted and dogma has had unparalleled power over the last 20 years.​

Bridges: "If Andrew Little gets his head on bail, sentencing and parole changes, the consequences will be dire. I have no doubt if Andrew Little gets his head there will be an uproar in New Zealand over time as the victims of crime become more and more apparent."

National Party Corrections spokesman David Bennett. Photo / Supplied
National Party Corrections spokesman David Bennett. Photo / Supplied

Bennett: "What they are looking at doing is reducing those rules and they've said many a time that is their intention, and if they do it then that increases the risk because there are more people out."

Mark Blackham has an expertise in how to communicate difficult subjects. The BlacklandPR director bills himself as an "expert in human communication behaviour". He was once Prime Minister Mike Moore's press secretary and speech writer then head of Labour's media unit for much of the 1990s.

He simply cannot see how Little can now sell his vision to the New Zealand public.

"If Little was going to succeed, he would have to break free of the narrative. He's got to change the language."

English did this. When he talked of prisons as a moral and fiscal failure, he spoke each prison bed costing $250,000 to establish and $90,000 a year for each prisoner. He spoke of root causes, statistical analysis from birth to identify target areas for spending.

It was a switch from the typical crime and justice debate, which Gluckman described as a binary "soft-on-crime" versus "tough-on-crime" approach which overlooks the multi-layered, highly complex issues in society which drive crime.

"Bill English took some of the emotion out of it. He wasn't even talking about criminals and crime. He was talking about the source of social ills. He turned it into a fiscal thing."

Little, by contrast, "has allowed it to become about people who are in prison and whether they should be there".

Now, all the risk sits with Little. National, though, "have got the easy job really".

They are using what Blackham calls "the code" - a type of political speak which the public automatically translates into specific meanings.

The coded language from National evokes fear. "Fear is the strongest motivator. It can't be argued. It can't be reasoned with."

It has positioned National on one side of the argument. Doing so has left Little on the other side of the argument, which is difficult ground to occupy.

"I think that's doomed to failure," said Blackham.