Minister of Justice Andrew Little has laid out a vision for criminal justice reform which sees sentencing law relaxed and a rejection of "tough on crime"-style politics.
His comments during an interview with the NZ Herald have been likened by one leading academic as the boldest political move in criminal justice since former Minister of Justice Ralph Hanan, who saw the death penalty abolished in 1961.
Little said "so-called law-and-order" policies have been a 30-year failure and locking up more people with longer sentences hasn't made New Zealand safer.
"New Zealand needs to completely change the way criminal justice works," he said. "It is a big challenge we are facing. It's not an issue that's been a short time in the making.
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He said the rapid rise in prison numbers "follows 30 years of public policy-making, public discourse, that says we need tougher sentences, need more sentencing, need people serving longer sentences and I think, frankly, criminalising more behaviour.
"One of the major challenges is to turn around public attitudes - to say that what we have been doing for the last 30 years in criminal justice reform actually isn't working. Our violent criminal offending is going up."
The comments follow an open letter from 32 leading academics in criminal justice calling on the Government to reject the building of a mega prison in Waikato designed to hold up to 3000 inmates.
Those academics today welcomed the comments and one leading researcher equated the import of Little's intent with the abolition of the death penalty by Minister of Justice Ralph Hanan in 1961.
The proposed upgrade of Waikeria Prison is due to be decided next months by Cabinet and poses a huge challenge when it came in promising to reduce prison numbers by 30 per cent in 15 years.
The promised reduction comes at a time when the Department of Corrections is bursting at the seams with 10,695 prisoners and room only for another 300.
Little said: "We just had this rapid increase in the last few years that cannot be explained by anything other than penal policy that frankly has got out of control."
He said he wanted a "national conversation" which sought out the best ideas but also led to a better informed nation that understood "tough-on-crime" policies were leaving a legacy of failure.
He planned to hold a criminal justice summit - similar to the "jobs summit" held by former Prime Minister Sir John Key - which would seek out a range of views and inform the public.
He laid out a vision of a therapeutic approach to issues which drove criminal offending.
"We know the majority of those in prisons have issues other than they are nasty people.
"They have health issues and other problems and if we actually spent a bit of time on those things we can stop their offending. That's where the attention has got to go."
He said other possible changes being considered were to the Parole Act 2002 and the Bail Amendment Act 2013 - considered two of the main drivers behind the prison population boom.
Changes to bail laws rapidly inflated the prison population by locking more people up to await trial, while the parole changes 15 years ago kept people inside longer.
'Case for a change'
"We have to look at it and in my view, there is a case for change. The case was that by doing these things we will get more criminals off our streets and we will all feel safer, we will all be safer.
"If we thought by doing those things it was going to reduce criminal offending and make us all safer - actually, that's not happening."
He described the changes - which were made at the time in response to public upset over specific incidents - as changes "no one will really notice and it might have an effect".
"Our big challenge is to draw to all New Zealanders attention what has actually been happening and to win a social licence to say we have to do things differently."
Little said there would again be "isolated examples" which would prompt some to say "we need to revert back to the more draconian measures" which could have a political impact.
"That requires leadership to say no system is perfect. You just have to batten down the hatches and carry on."
Little said the Government faced three large issues - the question of Waikeria, criminal justice reform and the promised new 1800 police officers.
He said there was a risk with more police they would "arrest more people which puts more pressure on prisons".
He said the three issues needed to be consistent with reducing the prison population.
'Waste of money, waste of lives'
Dropping the numbers of prisoners would symbolise a criminal justice system that was "more humane and more effective" because it targeted the causes of criminal offending "for those for whom those causes can actually be fixed".
"What a waste of taxpayer money, what a waste of human lives, when we know many of those people with a bit of effort and a bit of help addressing those underlying problems could actually be helped."
Little also said he believed prisoners should again have the right to vote, although qualified the comment at this stage to those serving three years or less.
"They are prisoners who at some point will come back into society and they will have as legitimate a right or stake in what the politicians of the day do, and they should not be deprived on that right."
Instead, it was time to stop treating prisoners as less than human, to give them a vote and a role in our society.
And, in an extraordinary statement for a Minister of Justice, he said the imbalance of Maori in prison - 52 per cent of the 10,695 prison population - revealed systemic problems in the criminal justice system,
"There is a built in systemic bias or prejudice and we've got to understand that. We've got to something about it."
Little said regardless of the decision about the expansion of Waikeria Prison, the current facility needed replacing. He said the existing prison was "not humane" and incredibly old-fashioned. "Antediluvian," he said.
"The bits that are occupied by prisoners are, frankly, frightful. The whole environment is not one where you are going to feel, 'this is a time and a place where I can get to grips with myself and turn my life around'.
He said the training room at Waikeria was "literally a concrete box. "It's not an environment where you can learn. There's nothing therapeutic about it at all."
University of Canterbury criminologist Dr Jarrod Gilbert likened Little's rejection of "knee jerk" policymaking with National Party minister Hanan's success in ridding New Zealand of the death penalty and embarking on a programme of reform.
The Labour Party had suspended the death penalty and National had pledged to reintroduce it but Hanan - as Minister of Justice - convinced his colleagues to abolish it.
Gilbert said Hanan then led an agenda that "put New Zealand at the forefront of attempts to curb crime" and a radical programme that showed "greater humanity".
"The death penalty decision was important because it reflected the fact he wasn't scared to do what was right in the face of opposition."
Gilbert said Little would need to convince a "highly sceptical public" he was on the right track.
"None of the solutions are easy but we're at a tipping point where a bold approach in necessary.
"After years of policy not based on best evidence but the loudest voices, it's time we took a more sober look."
University of Auckland's Professor of Indigenous Studies Tracey McIntosh said she was "heartened" by Little's comments.
"We're seeing a very significant shift that could have some significant outcomes. I have always thought New Zealand could be a global leader in decarceration."
Victoria University criminologist Elizabeth Stanley welcomed the opportunity for a criminal justice summit.
She said there had never been an opportunity for a proper conversation about penal reform.
"We haven't sat down and worked these things out and to try and think of alternatives."