Q+A: Justice Minister “what we are doing isn’t working”

Justice Minister Andrew Little was interviewed on Q+A last night.

Andrew Little: after 30 years of tough on crime policy, the reoffending rate has stayed the same, “it’s not making us safe”

“We have to change the public debate on what we do with criminals”.

“If we are doing it right there will be more people leaving prison who have been helped and don’t reoffend.”

“It is not right that we’ve had a 30% increase in our prison population in the last 5 years.”

“No we haven’t got agreement from NZ First to get rid of 3 strikes law.”

Andrew Little: can’t rule out the possibility of systemic racism in the justice system

“Just the humanity of it means we have to do something different”.

“What we are doing right now isn’t working”.

I doubt anyone will argue that New Zealand’s incarceration rate is a problem, and that deterrents and reoffending rates and rehabilitation need to be seriously reviewed.

What is missing from the interview highlights (from @NZQandA) are solutions. That’s the tricky bit.

A review of the judicial system is under way. Hopefully that will come up with some good suggestions.

One problem is that a substantial up front investment will probably be required.

The growing number of prisoners has to be dealt with, and that is costly.

But much more resources are required for prevention and rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners after they are released. If these are done much better it should lead to lowering imprisonment rates, eventually.

Many prisoners are the result of long term problems, often intergenerational. Poor upbringings, lack of education and low skills making well paid employment difficult to get all contribute to resorting to crime.

Drug laws have worked poorly and contribute to a lot of crime.

Violence is a huge problem, it is a deeply entrenched issue in New Zealand society. It will be very challenging confronting and addressing this successfully, but it is an investment in effort and money that benefit us all if it works for the better.

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Criticism of ACT prison policy

ACT has succeeded in attracting attention to the prison policy they announced at their conference in the weekend – see ACT: reduced prison sentence for education – with critics claiming flaws.

RNZ: Flaws seen in ACT’s new prison literacy policy

The ACT Party’s new policy aimed at reducing prisoners’ sentences does not match up with its previous hard-line policies, the Labour Party says.

Labour’s corrections spokesperson Kelvin Davis said the policy had merit on the surface because too many people were being imprisoned.

But he said the ACT Party also introduced the three-strikes policy, which was about locking people up.

“It’s sort of counter-intuitive for them to be saying ‘well let’s reduce prison sentences’ but again without any real detail around the policy it’s really hard to measure whether this policy is actually going to make a difference or not.”

It’s not counter-intuitive. Davis should read David Seymour’s speech and read the policy explanation before criticising it.

It’s not difficult to understand that it’s possible to be tough on the worst recidivist criminals while also trying to improve the non-criminal prospects of first time and petty criminals.

Author and researcher Jarrod Gilbert said the idea of cutting prison sentences should be applauded, but the hard-line three-strikes policy fuelled high incarceration rates.

“We’ve got to balance prison policy between a punitive approach which punishes people for what they do wrong but also assists those that require help to change their lives and obviously that’s not just in the individual’s benefit to change but in wider society’s benefit, not only through cost but through reducing victims of crime.”

Gilbert understands that it’s possible to be both punitive and rehabilitate.

Kim Workman, a former head of Corrections who is a research associate at Victoria University’s Institute of Criminology, said any effort to teach literacy and numeracy to prisoners should be supported.

But he said the policy would be unfair on prisoners who can’t join in lessons.

An odd comment. You shouldn’t try and help some prisoners learn to read and write because some can already read and write and some others are too sick to learn?

“Twenty percent of the prisoners for a start, have brain and head injuries and are incapable of taking part in those programmes, 40 percent have mental health issues. So you’re really only looking at a small proportion of the prison community who are able to leave the prison early.”

I don’t believe that all 20% of prisoners with head injuries can’t be helped by education.

Nor all of the 40% with mental health problems. In fact self esteem is a factor in some mental health problems, so better education could help them overcome mental health problems.

But even if only the remaining 40% can be taught to read and write, or even just a half or a quarter of them, that must surely be a very good achievement.

Kelvin Davis said the programmes already running in prisons needed more funding.

Jarrod Gilbert said support for those coming out of prison was urgently needed to help reduce recidivism.

Funding and resources are crucial if ACT’s policy is to succeed.

Mr Seymour said the rehabilitation of prisoners was crucial and the policy would be part of any coalition arrangement, if ACT were in a position to be part of the government after September’s general election.

He said he had spoken with the Prime Minister about the policy and Bill English was open to the idea.

This policy is a good candidate for consideration as a social investment. Putting more money and resources into rehabilitation and education should fairly quickly save costs through reducing the number of people in prison.

Forced drug and alcohol rehab

I thought that a basic requirement of successful drug and alcohol rehabilitation was the willingness and determination of the addicts to beat their addiction. But a new law may force people into rehabilitation.

Stuff: New law could force more drug and alcohol addicts into compulsory rehabilitation

More drug and alcohol addicts could be forced into treatment programmes as the result of a recent law change, which has raised questions about whether rehabilitation centres will be able to cope.

The Substance Addiction Act became law last week. It simplifies the process for police, health services and loved ones to force those locked in a cycle of substance abuse into compulsory treatment.

The new law allows any third party to apply for a person to have compulsory treatment, but it must be signed off by an approved specialist. The law specifies addicts can only be held up to 16 weeks.

More and better rehabilitation is essential, but forcing it is a questionable approach.

You may be able to lead a junkie to rehab but you can’t make them cooperate.

Funding and facilities are also issues.

Wellington addiction clinician Roger Brooking said is was unclear whether the health sector could cope with a spike in rehab patients given there were only four approved centres across the country, and those centres were already full.

“If somebody tried to get someone treated under that act now, I have no idea where they would go.”

Dr Vanessa Caldwell, from the National Committee for Addiction Treatment and addictions workforce agency Matua Raki, said more addicts would likely end up getting treatment under the new law.

If adequate facilities are available.

About 100 addicts are already detained in compulsory treatment in this country. There are four approved centres  – in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch – but only two are accepting new patients, Caldwell said.

Patients detained under the new act would not be locked up, she said.

“We don’t really have access to locked facilities in New Zealand. When we talk about ‘detained’ it means they’re there when they don’t want to be.”

And may not stay.

In 2015, Christchurch woman Louise Litchfield spoke of her two failed attempts to get help for her 28-year-old daughter’s methamphetamine and codeine-based drug addiction under the 1966 act.

A judge declined her request both times, as her daughter successfully defended herself. Litchfield gave up a third time.

“One judge told me I was trying to take away my daughter’s freedom and I was offending the Human Rights Act,” she said.

So now someone like this can be forced against their will? How will that work?

Civil liberties lawyer Michael Bott said involuntary treatment should be used as a last resort in cases where voluntary methods had failed.

“Chemical addictions are huge and powerful and corrupt someone’s rational thinking.”

If they don’t want to be rehabilitated then they probably won’t.

But he believed a chronic underfunding of alcohol and drug treatment programmes was also a problem that needed addressing, as many failed to address the root cause.

“There are multi-facted reasons for people turning to alcohol and until we realise that … all we’re going to be doing is parking ambulances at the bottom of the cliff.”

Have adequate additional resources been worked out before the law was changed? It doesn’t look like it.

THE CRITERIA FOR COMPULSORY TREATMENT

* Any third party can apply for a person to receive compulsory treatment, but it must be signed off by a specialist.

* The patient must have a severe substance addiction and their capacity to make informed decisions about treatment must be severely impaired.

* Appropriate treatment must be available, meaning there needs to be capacity at a detox facility.

Capacity means budgets and facilities and staff. Surely that should have been dealt with first.

New ACT on crime and punishment

One of the best known ACT Party policies is the three strikes law which aims to lock up the worst offenders for longer. There is some merit to this, and there are risks of unintended consequences. It’s too soon to tell whether it is an overall success or not.

What three strikes doesn’t seem to be reducing is reoffending rates. Our prisons are full and there are plans to expand them.

ACT MP David Seymour has had a look at this and is proposing a different approach to dealing with increasing incarceration (while retaining three strikes).

NZ Herald: Act’s new approach to crime and punishment

The Act Party will “turn over a new leaf” and launch policy to support prisoners after leader David Seymour witnessed work being done by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Seymour told the Herald a new policy would be revealed at the party’s annual conference on Saturday.

“We have done tough on crime and continue to promote those policies – extending three-strikes to burglary … but we are also going to turn over a new leaf and start talking about being smart on crime.”

This sounds similar to Bill English’s data based smart targeting approach to a range of issues.

A keynote speaker at the Act conference in Auckland’s Orakei is former Labour Party president Mike Williams.

Interesting to see Williams speaking at an ACT conference.

Williams is now the chief executive of the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform, which runs literacy programmes that aim to get prisoners to a competent reading level, enabling them to read books to their children, take driver tests and have a better chance of finding work when they are released.

Almost 65 per cent of the men and women in prison fall below NCEA level one literacy and numeracy.

That’s an awful statistic. Poor education is closely linked to crime.

Corrections formalised a partnership with the Howard League in June 2014, signing a three-way agreement with the Ministry of Education, and has allocated about $100,000 to expand the driver licence and literacy programme.

A very good idea with a bugger all budget.

Last year Seymour joined Williams and Bill English at a prizegiving ceremony at Rimutaka Prison, where inmates who had completed the league’s literacy programme and learnt to read spoke about what it meant to them. Tutors who volunteered in the programme also spoke.

“What they [the league] are doing is very Act,” Seymour said. “They have got a private initiative with volunteers … they have had an extraordinary impact on people who have never had a piece of paper with their name and face on it before, have never been able to open a bank account.

“I went there because I was already thinking about the issue … I still think that people that commit three violent crimes should get the maximum sentence. But I think we can do a bit better on the first two strikes.”

Three strikes on it’s own was populist but inadequate.

Williams – praised as “legendary” in an Act press release promoting his conference speech – told the Herald that he felt very positively about Seymour’s interest in reoffending programmes.

“I am on a completely different side of the fence to David Seymour. However, I am impressed with the guy. He is open-minded about the problem of incarceration in New Zealand, and I have found him intelligent and forward-looking.”

Perhaps Williams could talk to some in Labour too then, if they are prepared to listen. It’s good to see him prepared to promote his cause with any party willing to learn and act.

In October, the Government announced plans to cope with a booming prisoner population including a 1500-bed prison on the current Waikeria Prison site in Waikato.

Those changes will hit the Government’s books by an extra $2.5 billion over about five years.

That’s nuts. A decent dollop of that budget should be diverted to rehabilitation and prevention, that would make a much more beneficial difference to the lives and families of individuals and to the country as a whole.

Williams has previously said that although successive Corrections ministers have supported measures to reduce reoffending, the prison population was growing because of harder bail and parole rules, an influx of deportees from Australia and the three-strikes legislation.

So it makes sense that much more effort and money should go towards reducing  reoffending – and addressing the factors that lead to offending in the first place.

ACT will be announcing policy on crime this weekend.

I expect (or at least hope) the Government will act on this soon, like in May’s budget.

Punitive imprisonment versus rehabilitation

New Zealand has one the highest imprisonment rates in the developed world, and despite a target of reducing re-offending by 2017 by 25% (that won’t be met) $1 billion more will need to be spent in the next five years to house all the prisoners.

The public psyche is punitive, with pressure on politicians to lock more offenders up for longer. That will cost more – and that cost is not just borne by the country (that is, all of us), there is a high cost to families and children affected by imprisoned parents.

New Prime Minister Bill English wants to apply his ‘social investment’ theories to prison numbers and re-offending rates. He has signalled a change in approach by removing Judith Collins as Minister of Corrections and replacing her with Louise Upston, who is also now Associate Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment.

Fixing the  lack of education and work skills that are prevalent in the prisoner population is an important part of rehabilitation and reducing re-offending.

The Government doesn’t just have to turn around rising imprisonment rates, it also has to turn around punitive public preferences. Neither will be easy.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert at NZH: Bill English faces tough job shifting the ‘lock ’em up’ penal policy

For a number of years Bill English has quietly championed a prison reform approach that should appeal to fiscal conservatives and social liberals alike. As prime minister, he now needs to sell it.

At stake is a billion dollar spend on a new prison caused by a prison population that recently hit 10,000.

In 2012, the government and the Department of Corrections set a bold target of reducing reoffending by 25per cent by 2017.

They are going to fall well short. Undoubtedly, many people will make a big deal of that failure, and perhaps that’s reasonable, but it ought be applauded for its bold intent.

It was the ambition of the target that challenged corrections staff – from policy analysts to prison guards – to fundamentally rethink what they were doing. Instead of simply containing prisoners until their release, they were instructed to think about creating an environment and initiatives that rehabilitate them.

It was never going to be a quick or easy thing to fix, but rehabilitation needs to be addressed.

Nearly three quarters of released prisoner were reconvicted of an offence within five years, and more than half were returning to prison.

In many cases if the underlying causes of crime aren’t resolved then offending is likely to continue.

More importantly, reducing reoffending wouldn’t just reduce costs, it would also mean fewer victims of crime. There is perhaps no clearer example of a classic win/win.

That’s something that the public need to understand.

On this basis, the government launched a reform agenda, but it hasn’t taken the country with it. And this is a mistake. Without building a broad public consensus on the approach’s goals and merits, it is at risk from moral panics and knee-jerk politics.

Our base instinct to punish criminals is natural and punishment is an important function of prison.

Lock-em-up proponents tend to be more vocal, more pushy for more imprisonment.

But often there will be no sentence long enough to placate distressed victims or their loved ones, so as a society we must weigh-up those desires with the interests of the public good.

Media play a major part in this. It’s common for them to push the victims of crime to speak after sentencing, and in most cases unsurprisingly they usually say sentences were not sufficient. This just feeds the longer sentence pressures on politicians.

And here’s where we need to start the conversation and build a consensus around the balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

Extending the debate beyond punishment may not be easy. New Zealand has been sold the idea that longer sentences are the solution by both major parties for years.

Populist tougher sentence policies pander to what voters seem to want.

Penal populists say harsh sentences act as deterrence by making people think twice before committing crime. Deterrence arguments aren’t without merit but studies show that likelihood of apprehension is a far greater deterrent than severe punishments.

So wouldn’t an extra billion dollars be better spent on policing rather than on prisons?

But media and public pressure works against this.

When Philip Smith escaped to Brazil in 2014, for example, there was an immediate clampdown on temporary releases that allow prisoners to work outside the wire in paid employment.

Despite the escape being a consequence of corruption rather than policy, the Department of Corrections feared a public backlash and restricted temporary releases even though they were widely seen as a successful rehabilitation tool.

One high profile escape adversely affected many others.

Having removed Judith Collins from the Corrections portfolio, English has very publicly signalled that the harder-edged and populist approach does not curry his favour.

But can he change public attitudes in the way Judith Collins and others so cleverly played up to them?

Can English convince the country that although the Department of Correction’ re-offending target won’t be met, its modest gains and the change of thinking it represents is nevertheless the best hope of bringing the prison population down?

That won’t be easy.

I don’t know the answer to that; the punitive approach in the New Zealand psyche is so strong we’ve become one of the most imprisoned populations in the developed world without even flinching.

The loudest calls are for even longer prison sentences.

Do we really want more prisons?

Or can we see the sense in more policing, more rehabilitation and less offending?

One thing that Gilbert doesn’t mention is drug and alcohol links to a lot of offending. Addressing addictions is a critical part of rehabilitation.