AS we know, our ex-local MP, Chester Borrows, is heading Justice Minister Andrew Little's brainchild to combat our burgeoning prisoner population — the Independent Justice Advisory Group.

In an interview broadcast on last weekend's Radio NZ Sunday programme, Chester reiterated points outlined in his last Chronicle column: They're hitting the road to talk to people to "see what is happening on the front line, [and] what is new in dealing with a criminal justice system that most people accept is not working."

You'd think, if the group's eight ostensible experts were worth their salt, they'd already know what's happening on the front line, and be aware of the considerable information already available on the main causes for our high incarceration and recidivism rates. Chester touched on them himself in his own column.

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The last thing we need is yet another exorbitantly expensive hand-wringing multi-hui about what's to be done. What's lacking is simply the political will to address already-known causes.

Some of the causes are big-picture government policy stuff. Like that, in recent years — as have many other nations — we've created a poverty-trapped underclass where crime is just de rigueur survival, and accompanying social dysfunction, domestic violence, mental health issues et al, go with the territory.

But these issues are beyond the advisory group's scope. As Chester recognises, other more ground-level issues also impact, like low-level drug and traffic offences that end up ensnaring mainly the poor.

They're indicative that the main driver behind prison muster blow-outs is socio-economic based: Lack of skills, jobs, income, accommodation. Survival stuff.

The Corrections department is slowly getting on board with skill-building, literacy, vehicle licence programmes, and the like. There just needs to be more of it. A lot more. Given the overwhelming problem demographic is youngish males, no-one should be being released without explicit job options — even if those jobs have to be government-created.

Following the RNZ broadcast of Chester's interview was an excellent Insight programme, canvassing the exact territory Chester was referencing. It included several stories from ex-prisoners — including one from Whanganui — capturing the essence of failure in the key area of recidivism.

The interviewees' common theme was simply that they'd been released massively under-equipped for society's ever-increasing complexities and expenses. Most were in trouble from Day One. If they were lucky, they had a few hundred dollars accumulated from prison "wages", or possibly an emergency grant, and maybe a week's stop-gap accommodation. Then it's see you later.

Frank Greenall
Frank Greenall

A lucky few might have a job lined up. For others, the system can't even seem to have a basic Winz benefit already sorted, so on release there's at least a minimal income stream to cope with rent, bonds, phone, food, and so forth. No — they first need a "stand-down" period. The phrase most mentioned was "set up to fail". Little wonder many soon ended up back inside or with the gangs.

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I once had a school holiday job with lots of broom pushing. During one sweep-up around the boss's work-station, she — no doubt admiring my hot technique — remarked: "As my grandma always said, take care of the corners and the middle takes care of itself."

Chester's Group is about to travel the land to discover stuff already known but just not being implemented. Basic requirements — the "corners" — simply aren't being taken care of.

Given it cost $1.6m just for an initial Wellington chin-wag, by the time the advisory group has been transported around the country, hotelled, fed, with venues and refreshments, kiss goodbye to a bunch more millions.

The initial two-day summit's final budget makes for galling reading. Suffice to say $250k went just on audio visual and Masters of Ceremony costs.

Meantime, we have prisoners being released without the price of a bond or a prayer of coping with basic essentials and building a new life.

Go figure.

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