COMMENT:

Participants at the Government's criminal justice "summit" in Wellington this week would have been dreading that a brutal crime might be committed by a person on bail, just as they were agreeing that judges are remanding too many people in custody to await their trial.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has pointed to the fact that some of those remanded in prison are not sentenced to prison if found guilty, though it is not quite the same thing. Nevertheless, if this is one way to reduce pressure on our prisons, few taxpayers would be opposed — until the next time somebody on bail commits an horrific assault or murder.

That is the problem. Statisticians may tell us very few serious crimes are committed by people on bail but the public cares about individual victims, not statistics. Very few would care that though crime rates are falling our prison numbers are not.

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Taxpayers should care because we could be spending public money on purposes much more useful than more prisons.

Prisons do little more than protect the public from violent offenders for a finite period. "Tougher" sentences can extend that period but the fact remains, in all but the most serious psychotic cases, the prisoner is going to rejoin society eventually, better or worse for the imprisonment. It is often worse.

Gangs thrive on prisons. It has been said by those who have been inside that if a prisoner is not already affiliated to a gang he probably needs to become so to survive.

If the Justice Minister's summit can find a more effective way to punish serious crime, so much the better. But the country has held these exercises before.

The alternative non-custodial sentences are well-known and often used. Rehabilitation programmes within prison are not new and have had limited success in reducing rates of recidivism.

Criminologists and prison reformers are proposing nothing better than more use of non-custodial sentences and the summit's purpose seemed to be mainly to help the minister persuade the public tougher sentencing has not worked.

One statistic produced for the summit has made an impact on the public. The realisation that Māori make up more than 50 per cent of the prison muster is truly devastating.

It means that more than half of those behind bars come from just 15 per cent of the population. Racism, or racial profiling, in law enforcement is often offered in explanation but other Polynesians do not seem to suffer it. Prisoners of Pacific Island heritage comprise about 11 per cent of inmates, which is proportionate to the population.

The breakdown of Māori families and the loss of land and communities has left many young Maori vulnerable to gang associations and the crime those cause. Imprisonment could rescue them from social conditions much worse than a personal cell and give them opportunities they would not otherwise receive. Institutions run by Māori along more cultural lines might be especially effective.

A fresh Government seems prepared to try something new despite the political risks. It deserves every encouragement. The system we have is getting us getting us nowhere.