The Government’s new prison dilemma

After years of populist politics pushing up police numbers and sentences the number of people in New Zealand prisons has grown markedly.

We have just about used up all available beds, projections are for more prisoners (more than the more predicted), and there are plans to increase the number of police by another 1800.

The previous Government had planned a new prison to cope. The new Government wants to reduce prisoner numbers, so they have a dilemma – proceed with the new prison, or risk appearing soft on criminals.

Dave Armstrong: Locking away the logic and throwing away the key

Help! There are only 300 prison beds left to accommodate our booming prison population and our useless Labour Government is sitting on its hands wondering whether to build a new $1 billion prison.

That’s the present situation, if the National Party is to be believed.

The facts are that despite our crime levels staying pretty much in line with other countries over the last 30 years, our prison population has skyrocketed thanks to various “get tough” policies enacted by previous governments.

The policy of the previous government seemed to be that in order to get tough on law and order you needed to build more prisons to accommodate all the new criminals. And build them it did.

Now Davis, thanks to his predecessors, is in the unenviable position of either committing to building a $1b prison he doesn’t want or risking an accommodation crisis and alienating police, prison and justice staff – the very people he needs to help him reduce the prison population.

So, given that we don’t want violent criminals roaming the streets, how do we reduce prison numbers?

One option is that, instead of using the extra police to catch more criminals, to focus them on crime prevention.

Another is to re-evaluate what sort of people should be locked up.

A good start would be to get rid of people who aren’t violent. Thankfully, the Government wants to treat drug addiction as a health rather than criminal problem. Governments that do this, such as Portugal’s, report a decrease in drug crime. I suspect the legalisation of cannabis would greatly reduce gang-related crime.

But the current Government seems seriously averse to addressing to obvious problems with our drug laws, apart from allowing a Green referendum probably at the end of this term, that will probably be ignored by the next Government.

Half of prisoners are Māori, so let’s admit that the New Zealand penal system has failed dismally and that we need to look at new initiatives. I understand that many Pākehā may feel uncomfortable with autonomous Māori-run penal facilities, but how would they feel if such facilities were found to slash Māori offending?

The most vocal seem to be focussed on locking up and punishing, rather than addressing the causes of crime.

We know that many prisoners lack education.

We should be locking our prisoners in the classrooms of whatever they want to learn, with inspiring teachers, and throwing away the key.

A large number of prisoners are illiterate.

You don’t need qualifications to be a criminal – but prisons are effective crime universities, but associating people with bleak mainstream futures with experienced criminals looking for recruits.

Davis has had a shaky start in Parliament this term but his record on Corrections has been exemplary. I hope he listens to the top academics who have recently urged him not to build the new prison and ignores the calls from the people who are clamouring for yet another expensive hi-tech monument to our failed penal policies of the past.

But that could be tricky. They can’t just release prisoners to reduce numbers. It’s not an easy or quick thing to turn around in the timeframe needed to make decisions on new prisons.

Leave a comment


  1. Trevors_elbow

     /  26th February 2018

    Many are illiterate… failed by the education system…. but partnership schools shouldnt be tried to address the tail of failure in our system… because ? Uniin finance politics say they are bad those nasty partnership schools

    Lock fewer people up say the well off lefties living in safe suburbs… because when scum get back on the street they dont move into the well off persons street.. easy moralising with no butchers bill to pay as a consequence… parole these a holes to houses in Khandallah, Ponsonby etc…. Im sure hordes of violent thugs restricted to lovies suburbs will cause zero problems

    Legalise grass if you want… doesnt matter its way too late… P is established and that is where gangs make their real money any way…

    I have an idea target organised crime hard .. really hard. Establish very tough sentences with no parole for things like trading in P and its precursors.. ignore grass… and put every gang member caught in the P trade away for 40 years plus seizure of all assets….

    And house them in specially prisons with no one but themselves for cell mates….where they cant recruit snd can only hurt each other….

    Be interesting to see the results…

    Don’t want to go to jail… don’t commit crime

    • Blazer

       /  26th February 2018

      the criminals you talk about are very unsophisticated.Dylan got it…right…
      ‘Steal a little and they throw you in jail

      Steal a lot and they make you king’

      • Trevors_elbow

         /  26th February 2018

        Blah blah blah…

        Not your working class is abused shtick all the time bol.

        People like Petrovic and co need much harsher sentencing … totslly agree. But they are a different conversation all together

    • PDB

       /  26th February 2018

      I agree with you, cannabis should be legalized but will make no difference to imprisonment figures – people locked up primarily for drug offenses (all drugs) only makes up around 13% of the NZ prison population anyhow.

  2. Gezza

     /  26th February 2018

    Kelvin is gonna have to work fast if there are only 300 more beds left. He can’t direct judges not to lock ’em up.

    • NOEL

       /  26th February 2018

      60 percent of the prison population are recidivists.
      You build a prison for say 100 first timers. 30 percent of those are going to be back. Then later you have to add the recidivists.
      The need for increasing prison beds started with those first timers, the majority under 20 who didn’t get the message.

  3. Zedd

     /  26th February 2018

    I think Mr Little ‘hit it on the head’.. the prisons are getting full up, with over 3000 remand prisoners, awaiting sentencing. Maybe they should be on ‘home detention’ instead, unless they are violent offenders..
    also; over 10% are in jail for ‘drug offences’ & many for ‘mental illness’ issues; Prison should be the LAST option for these people, not the first, second or even third ? They are using prison as a multipurpose ‘holding pen’ for all of ‘society’s problems’ (perceived or otherwise).. If in doubt, just lock ’em up.. until we decide, what else to do with them ! 😦

    In USA & other places, they even give ‘minor offenders’ the option of ‘military service’.. maybe not a bad idea.. Im not talking ‘boot camps’ with no specific plan, for afterwards

  4. PartisanZ

     /  26th February 2018

    “The evidence, in fact, suggests that prison is one of the significant causes of crime. Given that, it is just not smart for our criminal justice system to keep locking up more and more people.” – TOP policy statement

    Multi-pronged approach required and urgently …

    ” … the difference between reducing the prison population to 6,000 over the next 10 years and allowing it to steadily grow is conservatively $4.5bn.

    This money could be better used to kick start a virtuous cycle of rehabilitation, reduced crime and lower costs (as well as on better social policies and/or tax cuts).

    Scandanavian countries have successfully used this recipe to reduce the prison population and reduce crime at the same time. Other countries and several States in America are now following suit.

    – Raise the Youth Court age to 20;

    – Sentence more people to alcohol and drug treatment – they go to prison only if they don’t complete their treatment; and

    – More Restorative Justice.

    Many offenders end up in prison not because a judge believes that it is best for the community but because the court has no other good options. We need to invest in programmes that give judges other options and are focused on genuinely rehabilitating offenders rather than the dumb and lazy option of imprisonment.

    We will dial back legislation that strips the rights of prisoners and undermines their ability to reintegrate into society: return to prisoners the right to vote in elections; repeal the ‘three strikes’ regime; amend the Parole Act, and strengthen the Clean Slate Act.”

    Plus extend marae justice options, plus legalise cannabis with suitable home-grow provision, plus get REALLY tough on major organised crime … start at the top …

    and start with the TOP …

  5. The root of this problem lies with bad parenting, and that is the nettle that needs to be grasped. Everything else is just dock leaves.

    • Blazer

       /  26th February 2018

      lock the parents up…too.Lock up all non conformists,all alternatives to the ‘American Dream’…

    • PartisanZ

       /  26th February 2018

      ‘Good’ parents teach their children how to rip people off in business, Right? Or some do anyway …

      Watch ‘Dirty Money’ –

      That ripping-off creates inequality, leaving an imbalance of people who have less, or little, or nothing … as a direct result of being ripped off by the ‘Good’ people …

      Some few of the poor or ‘Bad’ turn to “ripping people off” …

      And, if they become parents, some of them demonstrate “ripping people off” … by example … just like many of the ‘Good’ parents do …

      So what would a Robin Hood Tax be …. Good or Bad …?

      • San Zani e Paolo

         /  27th February 2018

        “Financial Transaction Tax”.
        Operates where I live. Any trans over 1000, in steps of 1000, 0.05 goes to the taxman, except transfers between accounts with the same owner. This is a personal tax not a banker tax. Not sure if anyone misses it. Damn, if we can manage it then so can you!!

        And by the same token in a greenfield setting a transaction tax raised from the bank rather than the individual is equally simple. Lots of little amounts = 1 big amount. One problem might be that the banks find themselves in opposition for some reason 🙂

  6. sorethumb

     /  26th February 2018

    So this is a Maori problem. Maori have a bad attitude fed by academics who “teach” Maori Studies, Post Colonial Studies and Diversity Diploma Courses.

    • sorethumb

       /  26th February 2018

      You can blame the break up of the tribal structure but that has happened to all those who live in modern society.

      • PartisanZ

         /  26th February 2018

        You can blame modern society that has happened to all those who lived in tribal structures.

        The break up of … ?

        • sorethumb

           /  27th February 2018

          Close living in a physical location where the means of production is close and shared. Uncles and Aunts helping raise the children. People rewarded for their efforts. A slack tribe/hapu Will be displaced.

  7. artcroft

     /  26th February 2018

    “how would they feel if such facilities were found to slash Māori offending?”

    How about providing some evidence first.

  8. San Zani e Paolo

     /  27th February 2018

    Wouldn’t know where to start with this one, but the skewed demographics seem to be a possible way in. Why way more “brown” faces in jail than “white” is what some people are asking.

    Maybe it is TOO LATE to fix this.

    I had a brief squabble recently on facebook where 3 people with “non anglo” names savaged me for no reason that was obvious, apart from a person with a “yes anglo” name criticising the first response of one of the three. Immediately from this I suspected a layer of anger among your “not white face” people that is probably not recognised by the dominant sector.

    That anger could take many forms including aggressive behaviour both externally and internally, crime, and organised crime, passivity, and yes simple refusal to acknowledge what people with my background claim to be cultural norms.

    In a nutshell, in some 2-3 years of lurking in Aotearoa NZ media it has occurred to me that there is a level of superiority complex among the dominant sector that will be difficult to address. OK, pakeha people, time to look up humility in the dictionary. If it ain’t working, fix it.

    I would like to think that some progress is possible. In the end we are all meat unless we improve something.


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