• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.

Late last year I picked up the phone to answer a call from a close friend. I answered with much gusto: Yo flea-face! Turns out it wasn't my close friend after all.

On the other end of the line was Department of Corrections Chief Executive Ray Smith. The several seconds that followed were those cringe-worthy ones that you hope one day you'll be able to forget, but that you tend to retell to friends over drinks.

After scrambling out of the awkward hole I'd dug myself, Smith and I discussed a couple of issues that he thought I might have some insight into. The conversation was actually part of an idea we had mulled over before: that being the desirability of Corrections and academics working more closely together.


That idea was formalised last Friday, when a new Academic Advisory Committee had its first meeting. The committee has formed to provide ideas at a difficult time.

After a brief period of stability, the New Zealand prison population has grown at a faster rate than any time in history, rising 21 per cent in the last three years.

The Department of Corrections has become the 12th largest organisation in New Zealand. There are 8,300 staff - a number big enough that there's always a likelihood one of them will stuff something up - and a client base of 10,300 in prison and 30,000 on community sentences, none of whom are happy to be customers.

Fifty-one per cent of prisoners are Maori. Among the 750 female prisoners, a muster growing faster than the overall population, Maori make up 56 per cent.

This growth has occurred despite Corrections setting the goal of reducing reoffending by 25 per cent by this year. They have fallen well short, but the effort should be applauded.

Firm goals allow us to judge what is being done well or otherwise. It's for this reason the Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, wants to set child poverty reduction targets - and the reason the government refuses to do so is because failure becomes obvious. It's an appalling lack of ambition and accountability.

That's not to say Corrections isn't above criticism either: one of the academics on Friday described our role as that of a "critical friend" reserving the right to poke the stick at the department when needed. Critical friend is a pretty good job description for academics generally, and this new committee sees one of its tasks as engaging with the public to help them navigate the often tricky waters of law and order.

Few subjects bring out the worst in politicians than discussions on crime. Recently Hone Harawira said he wanted to bring in the death penalty for Chinese drug dealers, and in doing so demonstrated that racism isn't simply the domain of the majority ethnic group.

The Department of Corrections has become the 12th largest organisation in New Zealand.


Given Maori are overrepresented in crime, Harawira is clearly hoping that what's good enough for the goose isn't for the gander and that such calls aren't made against Maori.

Our indigenous people have never fared well by the hangman's noose. The first person hanged in New Zealand was Maori and one of the last, the young and simple Edward Te Whiu, was a case so tragic and painful it contributed to the death penalty being repealed.

Harawira's buffoonery has largely been ignored as one might the tantrum of a child, but it almost certainly won't be idiocy in isolation as the election nears.

Let's be clear, increasing prison numbers are often not related to increases in criminal offending (overall crime rates are down since the 1990s, but there has been some recent increases in violence), but rather because of political decisions.

Increases in our prison population have been impacted by at least two such causes. The first is a reverse onus for bail, which has seen the remand population expand to be almost a third of our prison population. The second is the toughening up of parole.

Fifteen years ago parole-eligible prisoners spent 52 per cent of their sentence inside and the rest on parole, now that figure is 78 per cent. In other words the flow into the prison pipeline has increased, while the flow out has been restricted. The result is an expansion in the middle.

These may well be the policies that the country wants, and that's fine, but debates around them tend to be emotional, often exploit false pretences, and rarely comment on the consequences, economic or otherwise. Across the board we need to be more sophisticated in our conversations. And too often that's not assisted by short-sighted political discussion and sensational media reporting. I hope members of this committee can help with that.

Indeed, greater links with academics should generally be encouraged; it's a resource of people who can and should be assisting with the country's important issues. So I make this a call to other forward-thinking leaders to engage with academia to better advance significant initiatives. And of course no self-respecting academic should answer those calls with anything other than, Yo flea-face!