In the preparation for the country's 2018 Budget on the 17th of next month, a difficult decision must be faced by the Government around the funding of a proposed new prison to be located on the Corrections site at Waikeria.

This massive jail would initially be able to accommodate 1500 prisoners and cost in excess of $1 billion. It is seen by Corrections as essential to cope with rapidly growing prisoner numbers.

The location was chosen largely because the jail can be built without a drawn-out consenting process.

Waikeria is remote and without public transport access meaning that that the regular visits, essential for maintaining family bonds during a jail sentence, will be difficult or impossible for most.

This plan has drawn strong opposition from a range of penal reform and social activist groups and most recently from Maoridom through the King Movement.

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At the Maori King's luncheon for the Prime Minister last week there was a paragraph in the speech delivered by the King's orator Tuariki Delamere that struck a loud chord with me: "When you have a problem with your plumbing you call a plumber..... You can't solve that by calling Government agencies full of well meaning, good intentioned Pakeha. You need to call Maori."

This was a welcome breath of fresh air for me. It is widely publicised that Maori who make up just fewer than 15 per cent of our population amount to more than 50 per cent of our prisoners.

Having witnessed the disaster of Maori incarceration for seven years and the lack of concern from established Maori organisations, this interest and Maori opposition to the new jail is welcome progress.

Last month the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser published an excellent paper on incarceration titled "Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs".

This is a dispassionate examination of New Zealand's very high rate of incarceration and its impact on the country's budget. In particular it assesses the value of the kind of huge capital expenditure that the Government faces right now with the proposed new jail.

A key quote at the beginning of the document offers hints at a way out of this crushing weight New Zealand budgets.

"Other countries, such as Finland, have significantly reduced their incarceration rates without crime rates rising. There is strong scientific evidence for putting resources into crime prevention, early intervention [identifying and mitigating risk], and a smarter approach to rehabilitation and subsequent social inclusion for those already in the criminal-justice system – not for building more prisons."

The current surge in prisoner numbers is almost entirely the result of the Bail Amendment Act passed by Parliament in 2013 as a kneejerk reaction to the murder of Christie Marceau by a deranged assailant who had been granted bail "at large".

This awful event was not the result of any shortcoming in the Bail Act. It was caused by a communication failure in the justice system.

The advice to the Government that the proposed changes to this act would mean an additional 60 prisoners was very badly off the mark, and well in excess of 1000 extra remand prisoners have required housing.

Locally, at Hawke's Bay's jail the conversion of a building, formerly used as a gym, to a 60 bed cell block was finished last week.

If the Labour-led Government is serious about reducing New Zealand's bloated prison population it would repeal the Bail Amendment Act 2013. However, if a majority cannot be mustered for this obvious solution there are alternative strategies.

Implementing the National Party's policy of reducing sentences for non-violent prisoners who successfully undertake self-improvement while in jail would begin the process of reducing the accommodation pressure.

This approach is becoming common in American states and also reduces reoffending.
A shake up of the shambolic parole system would help.

A prisoner who became literate through the Howard League's programme was scheduled for his parole hearing in November 2017 which would have almost certainly resulted in his release.

His hearing was delayed until the end of August this year. When objections to this delay were registered a new date was set for June 2018 and then finally (perhaps) at the end of May 2018.

This disorganisation has meant that this prisoner will occupy a prison bed for at least six months longer than needed. This is not an isolated case.

Resourcing the court system so that remand prisoners are dealt with expeditiously would also help.

When Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters visited a Howard League Graduation at the Northland Jail last year he met a prisoner who spent 808 days on remand.

More prefabricated accommodation on the big prison sites would act as a safety valve while such longer term solutions are implemented.

* Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today