How naive can our political masters be. They let a private prison operator self-report on how well they're doing, then act surprised when it all turns to custard.

It reminds me of Auckland's private bus operators who for years were allowed to self-report service levels and, hardly believing their luck, reported reliability rates nudging a fantastical 100 per cent.

Despite endless complaints from customers about late and non-appearing buses, gullible Auckland Transport and its predecessor organisations went along with the farce.

But let's not get sidetracked by the present furore over Mt Eden Prison into a debate over who should be running our prisons. The more basic scandal we should concentrate on is our ongoing predilection to crowd more and more young men - about 50 per cent Maori - behind bars in the first place.

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We herd them into metal cages, treat them like trapped animals, then throw up our hands in horror when they behave to type. At about 200 per 100,000 population, our incarceration rate is now on a level with countries we do not normally compare ourselves with - Gabon, Namibia, Moldova and Slovakia. Compare that with Sweden on 66, Germany on 83, France, 102, Australia, 130, and England, 154.

Thanks to the wave of what Victoria University criminology professor John Pratt dubs "penal populism" infecting our politicians, the incarceration rate continues to rise despite a fall in crime.

Somehow politicians from across the political spectrum can both praise the police - and themselves - for getting on top of crime, then pop on their Sensible Sentencing Trust supporter's badge, declare a crime tsunami looms and back tougher penalties.

In 1996, the police recorded 477,596 offences or 1280 per 10,000 population. By 2005, reported offences had dropped to 407,496 - 986 per 10,000 people. Over the next five years, it crept up a little, before plunging to 350,389 in 2014 - 777 incidents per 10,000 population. In the same period, the population rose from 3.68 million to 4.5 million.

Despite this plunging crime rate, our politicians merrily went on locking up more and more people. In 1995, the average prison muster totalled 4445. By December 2005, after years of declining crime, the prison population had leaped to 7420. By December 2010, it was up another thousand to 8546. As of February this year, it was up to 8831. No doubt the Sensible Sentencing Trust and Serco will both be baking a cake in readiness for the day the figure breaks the 9000 mark.

Finance Minister Bill English conceded to a Families Commission forum in 2011 that prisons were "a moral and fiscal failure". He later said that he hoped the new 1000-bed prison in Wiri would be the last because "they're very, very expensive". He said they cost $250,000 a bed in capital costs, and $90,000 per prisoner to run and "when we're tight for money, it would be good if we could have ... less young people coming into the ... pipeline where they start with a minor offence and end up with a 10-year sentence".

It proved hot air. Since his comments, the prison muster has increased by a further 400. If he is serious about keeping youngsters out of prison, he could start with driving offences. Why, for instance, are 10 per cent of prisoners inside for traffic offences?

Mike Williams, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, explains that in some parts of the country, judges jail drivers caught for a third licensing infringement.

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How crazy is that? The Howard League in Hawkes Bay has come up with a simple solution. Over the past two years, it has provided tutors and the fees to enable almost 100 parolees on licensing charges to pass driving tests, thus avoiding a possible jail sentence.

Some had amassed large fines. Some had trouble with reading and comprehension. The Government's solution is a $90,000-a-year prison bed. Even the lock 'em up and throw away the key brigade has to concede that's a fiscal failure.

In Sweden, in the 10 years to 2014, prison numbers dropped from 5722 to 4500 out of a population of 9.5 million. There was no resultant crime wave. They're obviously doing something right. Why aren't we?

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