There was a lot of head-scratching when Labour announced a goal to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years when it took office in 2017.
Not so much because of the aspired direction of travel - prisons were bursting at the seams and there were plans for a new mega-prison - but because the numbers seemed to have been plucked from thin air.
Why 30 per cent? Why 15 years?
Two per cent for every year, Labour’s Corrections spokesman Kelvin Davis explained to the Herald in an interview yesterday, and 15 years because “it was going to take time”.
So no real rationale, then, beyond the need for a downward trend over a long enough timeline.
But a downward trend is still what Labour wants, given how prisons are an “extremely expensive training ground for further offending”, according to chief science advisor (justice) Dr Ian Lambie.
So why dump the goal now, which leader Chris Hipkins did while being questioned by reporters on Tuesday?
Maybe because it’s being used to hammer Labour while recorded crime is on the rise - including for serious and violent crime - while election day is looming.
Hipkins sidestepped when asked if he was minimising political damage, saying: “Our overall goal here is to reduce offending in the first place.”
In general, he said prisons weren’t for people with a traffic conviction or a drug use offence, but for violent offenders.
But for the year to June, only 27 per cent of those convicted of a violent offence received a prison sentence, according to the latest Justice Ministry figures.
For serious offences, the figure was only slightly higher: 34 per cent.
That’s not to say reducing the prison population wasn’t necessary. It was. The incoming Government in 2017 was looking at last resort options including triple bunking and using beds in old boarding schools.
Davis claimed that the 30 per cent reduction was actually achieved - ”we actually reached it” - and with the capacity crisis averted, the goal is no longer needed.
The prison population when Labour took office in 2017 was about 10,500, so a 30 per cent reduction would be 7350. It nearly reached this level at the start of 2022, when it was about 7500.
Even if you were charitable and said there was more or less a 30 per cent reduction at this point, you can’t really pull out of a 15-year race a third of the way through and declare victory.
The prison population has been trending up since then and, in June this year, was at 8610.
The per capita incarceration rate at the start of the 2017 parliamentary term was 217 per 100,000 people, among the highest in the OECD behind the USA and Poland, but higher than Mexico.
It peaked at 219 per 100,000 people a few months later and then fell sharply to the OECD average (147 per 100,000) by the start of 2022.
The rate in June 2023 was 166 per 100,000 people, a 24 per cent reduction over nearly six years.
If ditching the target was due to the capacity crisis being over, it could have happened at any time over the past two and a half years. So why now?
“It’s just a decision that’s been made and I’m comfortable with it,” Davis said.
This is politician-speak for “it wasn’t my call”. Put to Davis, he said: “We make decisions together and we stand by them together.”
Who made the call?
“All of us.”
How to reduce offending
Labour’s 30 per cent reduction goal is immaterial to whether a falling prison population has had a positive impact on public safety.
There is no way to know whether this has been the case with any certainty, but one thing is clear: reoffending rates have been falling.
Corrections keeps track of prisoner reoffending within 12 months and 24 months of being released from prison.
In 2016/17, the 12-month rate was 46.8 per cent while the 24-month rate was 60.9 per cent. The latest rates, for 2021/22, show these falling to 35.8 per cent and 56.5 per cent respectively.
For those doing community sentences in 2016/17, the recidivism rate within 12 months of starting the sentence was 27.5 per cent, and 41.6 per cent within 24 months. By 2021/22, these had fallen to 18.2 per cent and 34.7 per cent respectively.
These are the lowest community sentence recidivism rates in 30 years, though Corrections says this is in part due to lower court traffic because of Covid-related delays.
The 12-month recidivism rate for those aged 14 to 16 has also been dropping, from 43 per cent in 2017 to 33 per cent in 2020.
You’d think Labour would be trumpeting these numbers, but they aren’t. Why? Maybe because it would be curious optics to wave them proudly while crime statistics are going in the opposite direction.
About 5000 more people were convicted in the year to June compared with the previous year, including an additional 750 people for serious crime and a similar number for violent crime.
Serious offences include those with a maximum sentence of at least seven years in prison, including murder, aggravated robbery, rape and dealing methamphetamine. There is some crossover with violent offences, which include murder, rape, acts intended to cause injury, abduction and kidnapping, and robbery.
The greatest increase across all crime over the years has been for theft, which made up 14 per cent of convictions in the year to June, up from 9 per cent a decade ago. There have been smaller increases for sexual assault and acts intended to cause injury.
These trends align with police statistics that show an uptick in recent years in recorded theft (due in part to better reporting mechanisms), and violent crime (due in part to the introduction of new family harm offences).
This also aligns with the findings of the latest New Zealand Crime and Victims Survey, which, for interpersonal crime, showed 26,000 fewer victims but almost half a million more incidents in 2022 (though the Justice Ministry says there is some statistical uncertainty due to a lower sample size and response rate).
There’s also been a 15 per cent increase in young people being charged compared to last year.
So what’s going on?
Davis speculated there might be some downstream effects from the Covid lockdowns.
“I don’t know what happened in Covid and the lockdowns behind closed doors, and what effect - whether there was abuse, whether there is just more isolation, or digital contact [rather than in-person] ... but we have seen a spike in youth crime.”
He said the best approach to divert someone from the justice pipeline is wrap-around, multi-agency early intervention for the most deprived and disadvantaged households where the children are almost inevitably going to become life-long criminals.
“For most children who offend, the offending behaviour continues into adolescence with increasing frequency ... These reports of interaction with the state prior to a child offending represent missed opportunities,” says a 2023 report about gangs by researcher Emma Brown and prime ministerial chief science advisors Dame Juliet Gerrard, Dr Ian Lambie (justice) and Tracey McIntosh (social development).
Missed opportunities are also highlighted in the 2022 report A Breakdown Across the Whole System, co-authored by Lambie, clinical psychologist Dr Jerome Reil, former Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft, and researcher Dr Ruth Allen.
“I can think of an example of a child who has been in the Family Court for five years, maybe longer, and as soon as he turned about 10, he started offending but of course didn’t get taken into Youth Court because of his age and he’s now in Youth Court in a major way and resources are just being started to apply to him at age 14. He needed it when he was 5, not 14,” a lawyer, Julie, said in their report.
Davis: “That’s exactly why I wanted to become the Minister for Children - because we haven’t been doing things right.”
When he took the role, he was told about 75 per cent of young people up to age 17 (about 1 million young people in all) were “doing fine”, 20 per cent might need help, 5 per cent were in “real danger of falling into trouble”, and 1 to 1.5 per cent were “at the sharp end of things”.
The state knows these families, given the constant interactions with welfare, housing, education, health and justice. And it knows where intervention should be targeted, given the overrepresentation of Māori in prisons (53 per cent), and Māori offenders in Youth Court (69 per cent).
“When we look at the devolution of resources and decision-making to communities in Oranga Tamariki, we’re working closely with predominantly iwi providers,” Davis said.
“We are trying our best to reach them. We’re trying to do things differently.”
Has Labour made a difference?
Again, Davis speculated.
“If you look at a child on the day we became Government and a child born [at the start of the previous Government], it would be interesting to see what’s happened in a longitudinal study.”
He listed several policies that might potentially have had an impact - from paid parental leave to Best Start payments - alongside trying to enable more locally-led, whanau-centred intervention.
“The kids who were born when we became Government are only six now. Are they better prepared for school and better prepared to be successful? I’d like to think that,” he said.
“But I just don’t know. It will take time to see whether those things have an impact on the lives of those kids. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Derek Cheng is a senior journalist who started at the Herald in 2004. He has worked several stints in the press gallery and is a former deputy political editor.