Our overflowing prisons were at crisis point in early 2018, but prisoner numbers have since fallen by 3000. Derek Cheng looks at why, the impact it has had on public safety and what comes next.
It was an ambitious goal in the middle of a crisis of bulging prisons and with nothing but more prison pressure expected for the foreseeable future.
The Labour Party pledged to cut the prison population by 30 per cent over 15 years when it came into office after the 2017 election when there were 10,400 prisoners. By March 2018, it had climbed to 10,820.
The fall since then is being described by one academic as a "phenomenon".
On Wednesday it was 7729, or 29 per cent below the 2018 peak, and almost 5500 lower than the projected number - 13,200 prisoners – when Labour came into power.
And the latest 10-year projection, released yesterday, is for only about 8000 prisoners by June 2031 - 6400 lower than previously forecast.
Stepping into the crisis when he became Corrections Minister in October 2017, Kelvin Davis' immediate job was deciding what to do with the previous Government's plan for a 1500-bed prison at Waikeria.
"It still wouldn't be built now, and there are only about 11,000 beds [nationwide]. I don't know where those 13,200 would be – triple-bunking, possibly even quadruple-bunking," Davis told the Herald.
"There was talk about requisitioning police cells, even old boarding schools. There was a Māori boarding school that had recently closed, and I was thinking, 'If that has to be used, that's in the middle of town.'
"It was pretty grim and dire. Can you imagine that sort of thing happening?"
Without such drastic measures, Davis says they would have had to build a billion-dollar "American-style mega-prison" every few years. Instead building Waikeria, now delayed due to the pandemic and planned as a 600-bed facility, isn't as urgent as it was.
New Zealand used to be sixth in the OECD for the highest imprisonment rate but has now dropped to 12th. The number of women in prison has dropped by 46 per cent, and while 28 per cent of prisoners are still double-bunked, this is down from 43 per cent at the peak.
The massive turnaround is also political ammunition.
The Opposition has been touting law and order as a major election issue, and a decrease in prisoner numbers is a convenient target for clichéd cries of "soft on crime".
Fewer people in prison could mean more people on the streets who should be in prison, National says.
And while there is political consensus on lower prisoner numbers being a good thing, there is no consensus on whether the public is any safer because our prisons are less full.
Why the massive drop?
"There's no silver bullet," said Davis when asked what's behind the turnaround. He cites a number of factors, none of which have much to do with politicians.
More prisoners are being bailed because of specific programmes to ensure judges have all the relevant information in front of them so they can consider cases in a timely manner.
Similar efforts are made for prisoners to be parole-ready, and for those leaving prison - either on parole or having finished their sentence – to be supported with a house, job, driver's licence and bank account when they re-enter the community.
This is reintegration, which used to be 10 per cent of the rehabilitation spend, Davis says.
"That's like having two broken legs and only fixing one."
That spend is now 17 per cent.
The Government has changed nothing about bail or parole eligibility. Davis says the system has just become more efficient.
The average proportion of a sentence served has also dropped from 80 per cent in 2018 to 73 per cent in 2020, while at the same time recidivism rates have fallen.
Three years ago, 62.1 per cent of prisoners reoffended and 43.3 per cent ended up back in prison within two years of being released.
In the year to June 2021, these had fallen to 58.1 per cent and 39.6 per cent.
An average of 7400 sentenced prisoners a year were released through those years, so the falling recidivism rate would equate, annually, to 296 fewer prisoners reoffending and 274 fewer prisoners being back behind bars within two years of release.
The re-imprisonment rate for those on community-based sentences rose over that same period from 8.2 per cent to 10.8 per cent, but it had dropped for reoffending from 40.3 per cent to 35.3 per cent.
Auckland University criminology senior lecturer Dr Alice Mills said, "It's quite a small drop, and it's unclear whether it's going to be enduring, and quite what's behind it.
"It is possible, however, that if we've got fewer short-termers coming into the system - who are the ones that tend to reoffend at the highest frequency - that's part of the reason it's dropping."
Short-termers tend to be those on lower-level offences, and police have increasingly been using diversion for category 1 and 2 offences, the latter being ones that are punishable by less than two years' imprisonment.
"The other thing is that, with fewer people in the system, there should be more access to things such as rehabilitation and reintegration," Mills said.
"Corrections has put quite a lot more resources into things such as accommodation, for example, in the last few years. That's also likely to reduce the risk of reoffending."
Rehabilitation is an area where Corrections has copped criticism. Shorter-term alcohol and drug treatment programmes have been scrapped, which has seen almost an 80 per cent drop in the number of inmates getting such treatment.
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has also criticised the lack of access to rehabilitation, while programmes that are being done are often too little, too late.
Davis says many programmes are only accessible to sentenced prisoners.
"It seems strange but the belief is that if somebody is arrested and does a violence course while on remand, it's almost an admission of guilt. Why would you, if you're not guilty?
"But Māori Pathways, for example, from the day someone enters through to the time they leave, is basically a rehabilitation programme. We are doing things differently."
And he defends the drop in "high-volume, low-value" rehabilitation programmes.
"Some were only eight hours in duration. You can't tell me that, in one working day, you can actually cure somebody with a drug and alcohol problem or a mental health issue. We're politicians. We're not magicians."
One area where progress has been lacking, and which Davis says is what "drives me the most", is the over-representation of Māori in prisons.
Māori made up 52 per cent of the prison population in 2019, when Davis launched Corrections strategy Hōkai Rangi and announced his goal to lower it to the same proportion as Māori in the general population, currently at 17 per cent.
Today, while there are 1184 fewer Māori in prison than at the peak, Māori make up 53 per cent of the prison population.
Davis concedes that all the parts of the puzzle contributing to lower prisoner numbers are benefiting non-Māori more than Māori.
He hopes the proportion will start to dwindle in the coming years.
"Hōkai Rangi and Māori Pathways, you start them but then you've got to lay the foundations and getting the kaupapa right. In the coming years, we anticipate we'll start to see greater benefit."
Brazen criminals picking up softer mood?
National Party justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith won't explicitly say there'd be less crime on the streets if the prison population was higher.
"It's a much more complicated situation than that. But if prison population is falling, and violent crime across the community is increasing, you have to ask yourself the question: 'Well, what's going on?'
"When the two are going in opposite directions, then we've got a problem."
He concedes the Government's point that a substantial increase in gang members, which is a factor in the level of violent crime, is in part due to the 501 deportees from Australia.
But he says gangs are also taking advantage of what he calls the Government's "soft on crime" message, pointing to $2.75 million in Government funding for a Mongrel Mob-led drug rehabilitation programme - which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has defended as supporting what gets results.
"I defy anybody to say that it's not obvious in terms of the public [gang] presence we're seeing in the last year or two," Goldsmith said.
"That message has filtered through and, in my argument, is reflected in a much more in-your-face, brazen approach that everybody in the country is seeing."
His basis for this is what he's been hearing from people "working in the justice sector".
"The gangs can judge the temperature of the water and make adjustments incredibly fast. If you take the pressure off, even for a moment, but if you take it off for two or three years, they respond very quickly and become more aggressive."
And gangs weren't the only ones picking up on that mood, he says.
"The judiciary has picked up on that message, independent though they are. There seems to be a sense of direction towards shorter sentences."
Ministry of Justice's projections are for sentence lengths to "remain stable" for the next decade, and ministry general manager Anton Youngman told the Herald they have remained stable, despite the monthly variation, for the past 20 years.
"More non-custodial sentences, such as intensive supervision, have been used in recent years in place of shorter imprisonment sentences, which partly explains the increase in the average imposed sentence lengths over the last two years," Youngman said.
Goldsmith adds he wants to see the prison population fall.
"The difference for us is that it has to reflect a genuine fall in crime. The worry we have is that this Government has decided that the number one priority is just to get the prisoner numbers down."
What the crime stats say
Police data shows a steady increase in violent crimes - assault, sexual assault, abduction, robbery - across the country every year: 25,551 such crimes in 2017, 27,431 in 2018, 28,897 in 2019, 29,561 in 2020, and 32,021 in 2021.
That's a 25 per cent increase or a 6.3 per cent annual increase on average.
There is no online police data on violent crime prior to 2017, but overall crime was trending down during that period while the prison population was rising.
Davis challenges the notion that crime is increasing, and cites the Justice Ministry's annual crime and victims survey, which isn't reliant on complaints being laid with police.
The survey interviews about 8000 people aged 15 and over, and notes that only about 25 per cent of crimes are reported to the police. Some offences, such as sexual assaults (8 per cent), are particularly under-reported to police.
There have been three surveys, covering the period from March 2018 - when the prison population peaked - to November 2020.
"Apart from burglaries, which fell significantly between cycles 1 and 3, there were no other statistically significant changes in individual offence types," the latest survey said.
"The level of overall victimisation has remained stable over time, with about 30 per cent of adults victimised once or more in the previous 12 months."
A snapshot of cycle 3 (the 14 months to November 2020) shows that, for every 100 adults, 16 suffered "interpersonal violence offences", defined as sexual assault, harassment and threatening behaviour, other assault, robbery, or personal property damage.
This is the same rate as in cycle 2 (the 12 months to September 2019), and down from the 18 per 100 adults in cycle 1 (March to September 2018).
Burglaries per household were the only change, falling from 18 per 100 in the first cycle to 14 per 100 in the third.
Nor did the surveys find any "significant changes in the overall feeling of safety", with Hawke's Bay and Auckland being the places where people were most concerned about overall safety.
Dr Alice Mills says there are a number of factors in the complex equation of the drivers of crime, but a falling prison population isn't thought to be one of them.
"It's generally been shown after decades of criminological research that they've got nothing to do with each other.
"We were seeing crime rates decreasing quite substantially, yet our prison population was going up. Political and other reasons tend to drive the prison population, not necessarily the crime rate."
She adds that serious offenders are not walking free.
"The most serious cases are still going to court. They're not being diverted."
The latest justice sector projections estimate an increase in some serious charges in the court system.
These are more family and sexual violence prosecutions following law changes in those areas, and more weapons and illicit drug offences following greater police efforts against gangs.
But this will be offset by ongoing police diversion, 17-year-olds now being dealt with in the Youth Court, and the trend of fewer people under 30 entering court.
Overall the number of category 3 charges - accounting for almost 90 per cent of incoming prison sentences - is expected to remain stable for the coming decade.
But they're expected to be a higher proportion of charges coming to court, which is partly why half of the prison population is projected to be remand prisoners by 2031.
Pressure on the remand population also comes from court delays, a lack of court resources, and prisoners pleading guilty later in the court process.
They're all issues, Davis concedes, and the Government has poured $104m in recent years to increase the number of judges, as well as clear the court backlog following Covid lockdowns.
But Davis pushes back on whether the 2013 law changes, which made it harder to get bail and saw the remand population swell, should be rolled back - though it remains a future option.
"Ministry of Justice analysis indicates that the 2013 reforms had limited impact on the number of people remanded in custody for the offence types covered by the amendments, and did not impact the length of time spent on remand."
The ministry also notes a number of potentially transformational strategies in partnership with Māori, including the judiciary-led Te Ao Mārama, the impacts of which are too early to say, but which could see the prison population continue to shrink.
That would be a good thing in general, says Mills, who describes the turnaround in the number of prisoners as a "phenomenon".
"We imprison far too many people with mental health problems, with severe addiction issues, and prison is not a solution to those issues. It's much more effective to use something such as the drug court, for example, and use treatment programmes than sending them to prison, where, frankly, problems become much worse.
"People lose things like housing, jobs, family connections. They essentially have to start life back up again when released. Prison, essentially, is highly damaging, and if we want to reduce crime, that's not the way to do it."