Prisons “a moral and fiscal failure”

Today’s Dominion Post editorial says that More prisons are not the answer.

A recent announcement from Corrections Minister Judith Collins claimed that levels of crime are down but, and this may seem paradoxical, the prison population is up. According to Collins, this necessitates a massive $1 billion plan to create another 1800 beds in prisons.

Cynics might wish that houses could be built with such speed and commitment.

Yet our imprisonment rates are already more than a third higher than Australia and the UK, with an alarmingly high number of reoffenders. Figures show that 69 per cent of people starting new sentences have been sentenced previously, according to Act leader David Seymour, who calls the “prison population blowout largely a reoffending blowout”.

Which is what the ‘3 strikes’, introduced by the Act Party, was supposed to address? Locking up more people for longer will inevitably lead to more prison beds unless something else changes.

Has ‘3 strikes’ failed to deter recidivist criminals?

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill English famously called our prisons a “moral and fiscal failure”. That line has come back to haunt the Government. 

As it should. The Government continues this moral and fiscal failure.

Advocacy groups such as the Howard League argue persuasively that reoffending could decline if education and training was more accessible to prisoners, nearly 65 per cent of whom have literacy levels below NCEA level 1.

That’s a failure of our education system, and a failure of parenting.

By contrast with Corrections’ big spend, only a fraction of the $15 million recently allocated by Prime Minister John Key to tackle the methamphetamine problem will go towards treatment and education programmes in schools and prisons. Despite some gestures by this Government towards more sophisticated social investment approaches, the numbers tell a different story about populist, simplistic answers to complex crime and punishment questions.

Perhaps we need something different than prisons for drug addicts.

Something appears to be going badly wrong when our imprisonment rates are a third higher than Australia and the UK.

Talking tough may appease some lobby groups and voters. It’s a lot tougher finding solutions that work.

Prisoner reoffending reform

In a pre-budget announcement Corrections ministers have commited to spending on reform targetting reducing prisoner reoffending by 25%. This is a big target, but it’s well known that rehabilitation has not been given anywhere enough attention.

Budget 2012: $65m on reducing reoffending

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley and Associate Corrections Minister Dr Pita Sharples said the ‘reprioritised’ operational funding was aimed at reducing reoffending by 25 per cent by 2017.

It would go towards alcohol and drug treatment, increased education, skills training and employment programmes for prisoners.

Mrs Tolley said the funding would mean 18,500 fewer victims of crime and 600 less prisoners in jail in 2017 than last year.

“It’s time to get serious about breaking this vicious cycle of prison and reoffending.

Dr Sharples said represented a shift towards the rehabilitation and restoration of prisoners to their whanau and communities.

“This is a more humane response to offending, and it is cheaper and more effective.

As usual the media has found people who are able to find something critical about this, but it’s more interesting to see who is supporting it – the Howard League for penal reform, who’s chief executive is well known Labour official Mike Williams.

Howard League backs reform plan

Oppostion parties, a drug and alcohol counsellor and the Corrections Association are skeptical about whether a 25% reduction can be achieved.

But Howard League chief executive Mike Williams says international research shows such programmes work.

The Government says the target is bold but achievable.

The Corrections Department says it can achieve a 25% reduction in prisoner reoffending by 2017.

Chief executive Ray Smith says currently about 27% of prisoners reoffend when released and are back in prison within one year.

He wants this number to reduce to about 20% and says providing more participation in programmes for prisoners will lessen the likelihood of reoffending.

This sounds like an overdue no-brainer.

Jobs needed first

New Zealand First says the Government needs to create jobs for prisoners if it wants to reduce reoffending. Corrections spokesperson Asenati Lole-Taylor says there must be jobs for prisoners when they are released.

But Labour says jobs are scarce in the current economic climate, so finding work for ex-inmates is going to be difficult.

Of course proper rehabilitation means getting ex prisoners into jobs, and they can be hard to find, but it’s nonsense waiting until there are enough jobs – when will that be? Why can’t reducing reoffending and increasing jobs happen concurrently?

This is a good example of parties working together in coalition, with the support of organisastions and people, where the priority is on finding what is most likley to work best, without getting bogged down with politics.

Reducing prisoner reoffending will result in whole of society benefits – less tax to fund police, courts and prisons, and less victims of crimes.