"Imprisonment is a complete failure. It doesn't deter people from offending. It doesn't stop recidivism. And it doesn't rehabilitate people."

That's a radical view of what is wrong with prisons. It's the sort of thing that you might expect to hear from a reform group like JustSpeak or the Howard League. Some of those who contributed to the Criminal Justice Summit held in Wellington between August 20 and 22 no doubt shared it.

The summit seemed to come and go so quickly. But it's not over yet for the reform-inclined. The Safe and Effective Justice Programme advisory group - Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora (to give it its proper name) is visiting the regions between now and mid-December, with a series of public meetings so communities can have their say. The first is at Papatoetoe Public Library tomorrow morning.


Let's hope the group is received with more open minds and generates more informed comment than the initial summit or, as many described it, "extravagant gabfest". Most reaction in the aftermath of that was from commentators needing a head to kick or politicians trying to pick up some cheap votes from the much sought after vigilante demographic.

Apparently it "'ballooned" or "exploded" from an estimated cost of around $700,000 to as much as twice that.

There was no word on what would be regarded as a reasonable amount to spend mending a system that is as badly broken as our prisons. It might be helpful for the budget-conscious to compare the cost of the summit with the cost of keeping the Department of Corrections up and running. That has "ballooned" or "exploded" from $514 million a year in 2005 to $1.3 billion a year in 2017.

Perhaps a few million could be saved by the remarks at the top of this column. They were the concise summary of the problem with prisons made by Sir Clinton Roper, who hailed from that notorious breeding ground of soft-on-crime wusses, the High Court of New Zealand.

In 1989 a Penal Reform Committee under the retired judge heard 700 submissions and produced a report with some 200 recommendations. Roper, who had seen his fair share of people on their way to prison, reached the conclusion that it just wasn't working.

And he came up with some good ideas about how to fix it. His main proposal was that prisons as they were should be replaced with small community-based facilities in industrial areas.

Roper called these habilitation centres. "So many young people in the prisons have never been habilitated - made fit for life - so how can you rehabilitate them?" said Roper, explaining his use of the term.

He said most significantly that the current system failed to confront inmates with their crimes. In this, as in the focus on habilitation, his ideas echoed the traditional Maori concepts of whare marie in which justice can only occur within a framework of self-awareness and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Today's prisoner can go through their whole justice system and come out the other end without ever acknowledging the wrong they have done.


The report also recommended Paremoremo prison be closed down and that inmates be confined closer to their homes, given more responsibilities and improved clothing, food, medical services and employment.

Roper also noted that, "A vital aspect is education of the public who have to be informed that imprisonment is not the answer to offending."

In that respect, as well, the Safe and Effective Justice Programme Advisory Group will be hoping to see some advance from the state of things nearly 30 years ago, when the prison population was less than half what it is now. Perhaps the community meetings will change that.