Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis has spoken in favour of prisoners having the right to vote, saying it is an important part of reducing reoffending.

He said those who had been in prison were more likely to offend - and in doing so, create more victims of crime - if they were excluded from society.

Prisoners serving fewer than three years in prison were entitled to vote until 2010 when the National government changed the law to exclude inmates from the ballot box.

The Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal against a High Court ruling - upheld by the Court of Appeal - that the prohibition on prisoners voting was contrary to the right to vote guaranteed by New Zealand's Bill of Rights.

Advertisement

CRIME & JUSTICE
Andrew Little: 'Longer sentences, more prisoners - it doesn't work'
Justice path and bulging prisons - will NZ listen to scientist or sceptic?
Mum of murdered teen urges 'heal young criminals but keep deadly killers in jail'

Davis, speak to the NZ Herald at the government's crime and justice summit in Wellington this week, said those attending had heard expert evidence about the "normalisation of life in prison".

He said other countries had found even simple tasks - such as prisoners doing their own cooking and washing - meant they were better prepared for society when their prison terms ended.

"We have this very abnormal situation in prison where everything is so structured that when prisoners come out it is just a totally different world to what they've experienced.

"The normalisation of prison life to more closely resemble communities makes it more easy for people to transition away from a life of crime and what we expect of people in our society.

"If we want them to come out and transition smoothly back into the communities we actually need to make the conditions inside prison more closely resemble what life is like on the outside.

"I think voting is just part of the normalisation of that."

Davis said it was important for public safety that those released from prison were better able to assimilate.

Advertisement

The law change in 2010 was a contrary message because "we are taking away something that is fundamental to people - being able to vote".

Davis was a constant throughout the summit with his department, Corrections, coming in for greater scrutiny and criticism than others in the justice system.

He spent the two days speaking to attendees from the stage, listening to criticism from the floor and later seeking out critics to better understand their frustration.

Corrections minister Kelvin Davis sought out inmate-turned-inmate mentor Anzac Wallace to understand his outburst early in the summit.
Corrections minister Kelvin Davis sought out inmate-turned-inmate mentor Anzac Wallace to understand his outburst early in the summit.

For Davis, it is personal. Maori are far more likely than non-Maori to be victims of crime - and more likely to be revictimised.

Maori make up 15 per cent of the population but 51 per cent of the prison population - and half of those inmates are Ngapuhi, as is Davis.

"These are family, these are friends, these are whanaunga (relatives) of mine - I want my tribe to succeed in every way possible, culturally, socially, economically. We're not going to do that by locking people up."

The discussion about reforming the criminal justice system was easier with Maori, he said, because the disproportionate burden felt by Maori meant "they get it straight away".
Justice statistics show Maori have 660 people per 100,000 in prison against New Zealand European numbers of 93 per 100,000.

Davis said: "It's harder with other parts of the general population."

While there was a broader community concern about crime, most people had no connection to it with 50 per cent of crime affecting just 3 per cent of the community.

"That's not to diminish those people who are affected by crime," said Davis. "It is horrible."

He said the "reality out there is at odds with what people's perceptions are of crime".

"The vast majority of us will not be affected by crime but that's what we see on the news every night and read in papers. It does affect people's sense of reality."

While the summit has had a focus on prisons, Davis said the issues in crime and punishment - those who do it and who it is done to - are linked to most other parts of our society, such as education, health, housing and welfare.

And he is keenly aware it is a burden which falls particularly heavily on Maori.

"In the street I grew up in, there were 96 kids in 14 families. Growing up, we were mates. We would build huts in the bush behind the house and swim in the floods, do a whole heap of things.

Government ministers at the summit - Aupito William Sio, Stuart Nash, Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis.
Government ministers at the summit - Aupito William Sio, Stuart Nash, Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis.

"So many of them never reached their full potential. Their education just didn't work for them. their health - many of them have health issues.

"Really good people - kind people, generous people - but for some reason a decent percentage of them have gone to prison, a number have passed away due to health conditions. There's been heart attacks at young ages, car accidents, asthma attacks.

"There's a whole heap of things that have happened that have created the conditions where our people aren't doing very well."

Targeting support at marginalised communities is not generally a winning MMP strategy with politicians focusing on the centre ground where voters cluster.

"This is about those people who are on the fringes, who haven't had the opportunities."

But helping those people helps New Zealand, he said. "We need the public to realise this is about their wellbeing. It's not just about pouring resources into a minority of the population.

"This is about NZ as a fair and just country for all people. I'm very proud of what we're trying to do. This justice summit is just the start."