Prisoner numbers reducing & 3000 offenders a year sentenced to home detention

A lot is being said about the escalating prison population over the last decade – but it could have been far worse if home detention hadn’t been introduced in 2007. There are now about 3,000 people a year being sentenced to home detention.

although the numbers have eased back since early this year due to new measures that have been successful particularly in getting people on bail more, and getting them off remand faster (by getting them to trial faster).

David Fisher at The Great Escape – prison crisis eases after Corrections thinks outside the cell

The stressed prison network has had a Great Escape – a string of innovations allowing inmates and those charged with crimes better access to justice services has seen a huge fall in inmate numbers.

Our prisons now have 1000 fewer inmates than official projections and the prison population – around 10,200 – has fallen by 600 people in the past six months.

The changes haven’t involved keeping out of prison any people who should have been locked up.

Instead, it has seen “embarrassingly simple” wrinkles ironed out of the system which appear to have improved people’s access to justice.

A number of smaller projects had been underway for about 18 months but Corrections minister Kelvin Davis signed off on a permanent programme in January 2018.

So projects started under the previous covernment and continued under the current government.

The programme of change has been led by Corrections deputy national commissioner Leigh Marsh.

Marsh said innovations included trying to understand why so many on electronic bail were “failing and clogging up the system”.

When the process was studied, it was found those arrested with literacy issues were being handed complex forms to fill in that they couldn’t understand.

About 70 per cent of those currently in prison have literacy level considered insufficient for modern life.

Others couldn’t supply phone numbers so addresses could be checked as suitable bail addresses because the number was saved on the phone which was removed after they were arrested.

When prisoners were asked how they intended getting the phone numbers to arrange bail, they had reportedly planned writing letters to family.

There were now advisers who were available to talk to those who were freshly remanded to better understand why they had been refused bail – and to help obtain details such as phone numbers.

Corrections was also trialling in Wellington a service aimed at assisting those applying for bail. The bail service would help those charged arrange appropriate bail addresses, and to connect with programmes needed to address offending, such as services to deal with alcohol and drug abuse.

Once in the community, there were others who worked to help those on bail understand their conditions and to connect with support which might be needed.

Other innovations included helping those appearing for sentence find a suitable address for home detention, getting police evidence to those accused to enable faster pleas and ensuring those appearing for parole had taken necessary courses.

He said the biggest difference had been in the remand population. The number of people sent to prison to await trial ballooned after a new 2013 law which made it harder to get bail.

Marsh said the prison population had peaked in around 10,800 in March and had since trended down to around 10,200 now. It was currently around 1000 fewer inmates than Ministry of Justice predictions.

Successful changes.

And prisoner numbers have also been kept lower than they otherwise would have been by using home detention.

Judge Stephen O’Driscoll – Home Detention provides real alternative to prison

Since 2007 the District Court has been able to impose a sentence of home detention. Now about 3000 offenders a year are being sentenced to home detention.

In the sentencing hierarchy home detention sits above community-based sentences but below imprisonment. Home detention is, therefore, a real alternative to imprisonment.

Home detention means an offender has to serve their sentence at a specific residence instead of in prison.

The sentence must be for more than 14 days but no more than 12 months.  It can be imposed as a sentence in its own right or combined with other sentences such as community work.

Home detention should not be seen as a “soft option”.  It is in effect a curfew at an agreed address, and it is monitored electronically.

The offender must not leave the address at any time, except to seek urgent medical or dental treatment, or to avoid or minimise a serious risk of death or injury.

An offender may get approval to leave the address to seek or do paid work, or to attend training or other rehabilitative activities or programmes, or for any other purpose specifically approved by a probation officer.

A special condition that judges often impose with home detention is judicial monitoring.  This means the judge will receive regular progress reports from the probation officer. In 2017, judges monitored 275 cases in this way.

The court cannot impose home detention if the offender does not agree to it or the conditions. Interestingly, a number of offenders do not consent and the court is left with little option but to impose imprisonment.

Someone on home detention will usually wear an electronic anklet that continually emits a signal and triggers an alarm if the offender leaves the designated address without permission. Should that happen, a monitoring centre will send a security officer to investigate and report to the supervising probation officer who would then take any appropriate action.

The anklet is waterproof and is designed to be worn 24 hours a day.  Offenders can also be monitored while at work or while attending rehabilitative programmes.

The court cannot impose home detention if the place the offender proposes to live is not in an area where the Department of Corrections runs a home detention scheme or where an ankle bracelet’s GPS signal cannot be picked up.

Before imposing the sentence, a court must consider a report from a probation officer, which among other things, will advise whether the proposed residence is suitable.

Anyone else living there is required to understand the conditions of the sentence, and will need to consent to the offender serving the sentence there, in keeping with the conditions.  The occupants may withdraw their consent at any time.

Home detention has several advantages.  It can allow defendants to continue in paid work, remain in their accommodation and maintain family relationships.

It is also less costly to supervise than jail and has high compliance rates.

Most offenders know that should they breach the sentence or re-offend while on home detention, then they are highly likely to be sent to jail.

If a judge decides on a sentence of more than 2 years imprisonment they can consider home detention as an alternative. Corrections:

Home detention is an alternative to imprisonment and is intended for offenders who otherwise would have received a short prison sentence (of two years or less) for their offending.

Only sentencing judges can impose home detention. They must take into consideration advice provided by a probation officer who has assessed the offender, and the home address and any people who live there.

Offenders who receive a home detention sentence are subject to standard and special conditions.

Electronic monitoring equipment is installed at the offender’s address and their compliance monitored for the length of the sentence.

People who are on home detention may also be required to:

  • pay a fine
  • pay reparation to their victim/s
  • do community work.

Offenders must apply to their probation officer if they need to be absent from their home detention address. Their probation officer will decide whether to approve the request.

A probation officer may approve an offender’s absence from their detention address so they can go to: work, study, rehabilitation programmes, the doctor, and appointments with other agencies. All absences from the address are monitored by alternative means – such as verification from the offender’s sponsor or checking on appointments.

It seems to be generally working successfully in keeping people out of prison.

Suicide surge in increasingly crowded prisons

It has been well known for some time that prison space has been under pressure due to increasing prisoner numbers, but the Government does not seem to have acted with urgency. There may be a cost.

NZH: The number of people trying – and succeeding – in taking their lives while in prison has surged during the inmate boom

KEY POINTS:

    • The prison population went from 9273 prisoners in March 2016 to 10,712 in March 2018;
    • There was one suicide from March 2016 to August 2017 then six suicides in the next six months;
    • Over that same time period, there were 20 suicide attempts in the first 18 months and then 19 in the next six months;
    • Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis says more is being done for mentally unwell inmates;
    • Barrister calls for inquests into deaths to examine management and mental health support.

There has been a surge in prison suicides and attempted suicides by inmates over the months in which Corrections struggled to contain a ballooning prison population.

It has raised concerns that the unforeseen blowout in prison muster numbers after years of “tough on crime” policies is extracting a human cost beyond that elsewhere in our communities.

The new data comes as Minister of Justice Andrew Little prepares to ask Cabinet to back the removal of the Three Strikes law, leading to National reviving its “tough on crime” call and a promise to bring back the law if it’s scrapped.

Details of the suicides and attempted suicides, revealed through the Official Information Act, show one suicide occurred in 18 months from March 2016.

There were then six suicides in the next six months.

Over that same time period, there were 20 suicide attempts in the first 18 months and then 19 in the next six months.

Of those, eight were female prisoners even though women form just 7.4 per cent of the prison population.

The prison population grew from 9273 prisoners in March 2016 to 10,712 at the beginning of March this year. The rapid rise forced Corrections to expand capacity by introducing double-bunking across the network and reopening old prison units.

Victoria University criminologist Dr Liam Martin cautioned against concrete conclusions from the data because of the small time frame but “the up-tick is clear”.

He said prison had much higher rates of suicide because of mental health issues, social isolation and violence – and was known to be exacerbated by crowding.

This adds the pressure on plans (or lack of) to build more prison beds, and also suggested changes to bail and three strikes laws.

 

“Actually not that hard” reducing prison population by 30%

Andrew Little, in an interview on The Nation this morning, spoke about his plans to reduce the prison population by 30%, saying “it’s actually not that hard if we choose to resource it properly.”

That’s optimistic – and ‘resourcing it properly’ alongside resourcing health ‘properly’ and resourcing education ‘properly’ and paying for all the Government’s promises and commitments might be a wee bit challenging.

@TheNationNZ:

Little says they’re going to take a sensible approach to reducing the prison muster.

He says there are people in prison who with proper assistance could be set up as productive citizens again.

“We’re not only sending more people to prison, we’re sending them there for longer” says Little, and some prisoners can’t be paroled because there aren’t the resources for them to do the necessary courses.

Little says there’s merit in setting up a sentencing council to ensure consistency in the decisions.

Ministry of Justice research says that more Police officers means more people in prison – but Little says the style of Policing for the 1800 new officers will be around deterring crime.

Time will tell where idealism meets realism. I wish Little well with this, really. Crime, imprisonment rates and mental health problems and drug and alcohol problems are all too big, but reducing them all with budget constraints will be a bit of a challenge.

NZH reported on this: Andrew Little says he will reduce the prison population

The Minister of Justice and for Courts has revealed how he plans to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent during the next 15 years – by ensuring offenders with mental health problems get better rehabilitation and that judges are consistent in sentencing.

Speaking to Three’s The Nation Andrew Little said he was going to approach the issue “very sensibly”.

“It’s actually not that hard if we choose to resource it properly.”

Although some hardened criminals needed to stay locked up because they were a danger to society, a “whole chunk” of prisoners were there because they were battling other issues which had driven their offending, he said.

Too many people with mental health problems and other issues weren’t getting the help they needed while in prison, Little said, and so were unable to meet the conditions they had to get parole.

Ensuring they were properly rehabilitated would make it easier for ex-prisoners to integrate back into society and reduce reoffending.

He also revealed he would review how sentencing and bail was being managed by the courts.

Part of the reason our prison population was so high was because we were jailing people for longer, he said.

Little said the issue was not necessarily with the legislation, but instead more likely stemmed from how it was being applied and enforced.

“What we do have to do is get some consistency.”

Little would also look into how bail was being administered. He questioned whether it was reasonable to lock up many people who had been charged but were yet to be tried.

While there was “no question” the safety of the community needed to come first, it needed to be balanced against the actual risk offenders awaiting trial posed to the public.

Full interview here.