The legislative failings exposed by Andrew Geddis this week also reveal a depressing political reality

Andrew's post on the Law and Order committee's incompetent drafting has certainly got folk talking this week, and it's got me pondering how imprisoned our political thinking on prisons has become.

It's been quite a week for Pundit... Deborah Coddington's damning post on the David Garrett fall-out ("ACT deserves to die") became the must-read take on the debate, then the legislative dickheadedness exposed in Andrew's post was picked up by every newspaper, radio station and TV network (at least their websites). Makes us feel proud of all the effort put in by the Pundits here to try to inject some smarts into the national conversation.

The sheer lack of thought demonstrated by the members of the select committee is easy to dismiss as the work of poor, dead-end backbenchers. But there's another possibility as well, which is just as worrying.

I'm wondering whether the punitive politics in New Zealand have become so ingrained in the way our politicians think, so powerful, that many in parliament have simply stopped looking at law and order through any other lens.

It's as if the committee members thought, "tough on prisoners? There's only one thing the punters want to hear on that, so I'll just tick the box and go home early". It's as if, politically, there's only one possible answer anymore.

At some point, who's going to have the courage to stop the steady march, chain-gang-like, to tougher and tougher treatment of offenders? To be other than a lemming? Or does the Sensible Sentencing Trust own our judgmental soul?

Looking at the politicians lining up to speak at the Trust's recent conference, it sure looks that way. The conference was jointly hosted at parliament by National, ACT and Labour.

Labour in its previous term built a whopping four new prisons, deciding that as a centre-left party it had to pander to the 'lock 'em up' predilections they saw in the centre and on the fringes of National's centre-right vote. Those prisons were the political balance to the "nanny state" policies.

Phil Goff, as Justice minister, was in the midst of that political calculation, so I can't see any sign of change there.

National has been forced even further right as a result and as got into bed with ACT's three strikes and other measures that cut even more rights from those in prison. More prisons are promised, and Aucklanders heading into our great city are met with the symbol of this zeitgeist, the additional floors being built onto Mt Eden prison, rising over the motorway.

Political instinct, depressingly, now tells every party but the Greens to push harder and harder on law and order, and this select committee seems to have been caught in that web of group-think.

Yet this bill could be a sort of tipping point,especially if the SST wears any of the fallout from the David Garrett nonsense. While it won't suddenly make us a society that embraces rehabilitation, it might make some think that we've reached a cul-de-sac of thought on this issue.

Consider, for example, that something like half our 8500 prisoners are inside for less than a year, many for minor drug offences or due to an inability to pay fines. Do we want to de-register them within an electoral cycle and lose their vote when they come out? Are we so casual with our democracy?

Andrew has made the arguments better than I could, so I won't repeat them. The question is now whether the government has the backbone to put this bill to one side in the interests of what Jim Bolger would have called a "decent society".

 

Comments (13)

by BeShakey on September 22, 2010
BeShakey

I've been thinking about writing on something on this for a while (I even have part of a draft somewhere).  My opinion is somewhat more rosy than yours.  I think we're on the verge of a tipping point.  This won't occur because of all the namby-pamby hand wringing reasons leftys espouse (which I admit I agree with), but simply because politicians on the right won't wear the cost. 

 

At the moment it costs around $85,000 per prisoner per annum.  Building new prisons will only increase this (even if the prisons are built more cheaply than they were in the past).  While politicians have seen being tough on crime as a vote winner, they're now realising that it is hamstringing them by limiting their ability to implement other policies they support (whether that be more money for health or education, or cutting taxes). 

My conclusion from all that is we're on the way to a change in the political landscape (probably over at least 3 or 4 terms) towards prevention, rehabilitation, and more effective sentences (eg home detention).  From the perspective of those on the left this will happen for all the wrong reasons, but frankly I don't care.

by ScottY on September 22, 2010
ScottY

Hi Tim, good post as ever, but this isn't correct: 

"The conference was jointly hosted at parliament by National, ACT and Labour"

Clayton Cosgrove mentioned in a post a few weeks back on Red Alert that Labour hadn't objected to the conference being at parliament, but had not had any involvement with it.

Although when questioned whether he would kick up a stink about the claim of Labour co-hosting made by the SST folk, he went quiet...

by Phil Lyth on September 22, 2010
Phil Lyth

Scott,  thanks  -  I do my research and find you are ahead of me.  That "fact" will be one that (deleted perjorative), tories and C/T will be delighted to see enter the national psyche  -  so good to see it rebutted.

by Chris de Lisle on September 23, 2010
Chris de Lisle

BeShakey: If the current tough-on-crime agenda is defeated on cost grounds (& I agree that cost inevitably must come to bear soon) I would have thought it unlikely that rehabilitation would be adopted instead.

I understand that rehabilitation will be extraordinarily expensive to implement, because the infrastructure currently in place is so far short of what is required. Long term a rehab-based system surely would be cheaper, but long-term thinking doesn't win elections.

Unfortunatly, I suspect the cost tipping-point has arrived and that it is leading politicians to look for ways to be tougher on crime without expending funds: like banning prisoners' cigarettes and taking away the power to vote.

by martint on September 23, 2010
martint

Hi Tim,

SST's conference in Parliament was not jointly hosted by Labour. Labour had nothing to do with it -- it is a myth.

 

by Tim Watkin on September 23, 2010
Tim Watkin

Hi all, thanks for putting me right on the Labour hosting front. You'll have seen from the link that the Trust had officially announced that Labour was a host, and I assumed they'd know best about their own conference. My mistake!

It seems that Clayton Cosgrove is making the noises I wanted to hear, with this statement:

Labour law and order spokesperson Clayton Cosgrove is asking why Sensible Sentencing Trust head Garth McVicar and Prime Minister John Key are failing to stand up for the victims of David Garrett’s offending.

“I am appalled that the head of an organisation that claims to represent victims effectively aided and abetted David Garrett in his cover-up of the shameful act of stealing a dead child’s identity,” Clayton Cosgrove said.

“This act caused the family of this child considerable distress and anguish, but rather than standing up for their rights Mr McVicar wrote a reference which resulted in David Garrett receiving permanent name suppression and being discharged without conviction.

“Has Garth McVicar contacted the family of the dead infant Mr Garrett stole the identity of? No, instead of doing that he has helped out a friend with no thought for the victims whatsoever,” Clayton Cosgrove said.

“When the three strikes legislation was being debated, Garth McVicar texted me to say that it was him who was looking after victims. The text message made me angry then, with its implication that no one else cared. I feel even angrier about it now.

“Clearly Mr McVicar and the entire ACT Party are hypocrites. Each time they spoke about the three strikes legislation and the impact crime has on victims they knew that they one of their own had committed a heinous crime against a family and yet they said nothing.

But we'll wait and see whether that translates into policy.

BeShakey, you make a good point. With the population expected to hit 10,000 by 2014, our prison population double France or Ireland, for example, and crime going up, it becomes a harder sell. Especially when a 18 year-old prisoner costs close to $90,000 a year and an 18 year-old senior student at Kings costs $32,000.

But as Chris says, who's to say that may simply encourage politicians to cut costs and conditions. Step one, private prisons, meaning fewer guards and lower pay for those guards hired.

by BeShakey on September 23, 2010
BeShakey

The problem is that cost cutting leads to further problems, some of them in the short term.  For instance, the vast majority of the cost of keeping a prisoner is made up of two things - infrastructure and staff costs.  Things like shipping containers and double bunking will reduce the infrastructure costs, but only so much.  But they'll also increase the risk of violence and escapes, things that politicians worry about (particularly when the violence is towards guards).  Likewise, while you can cut staff numbers back a bit, theres a limit, and it will increase risks.

Chris: There are a lot of things under the 'rehabilitation' banner that don't have to cost as much - literacy and numeracy being a prime example.  Although I agree with your point that doing it properly will be costly.  However, my feeling is politicians will be forced into increasing rehabilitation (even if they lack a real ideological commitment to it) because once you get to the conclusion that the rack em and stack em approach is too costly you get forced to look at ways to stop people going to prison and stop the people that do go from coming back.  Remember, that simply 'rehabilitating' someone to the level that their next offence is less serious can save some serious $ (assuming that the less serious offence gets a shorter/lesser sentence)

by BeShakey on September 23, 2010
BeShakey

Sorry to add on another comment, but I had one last thought.  I don't think politicians can realistically cut conditions back enough to save serious $.  But they can be 'tough' on future crime.  For instance, three strikes looks tough (and in some regards is very tough), but doesn't actually have much of an effect until most of the current politicians have left office. 

I don't think there are too many opportunities to implement more policies like this, and I suspect that public would start to see through it, but it'll be interesting to see if they try this approach again.

by Draco T Bastard on September 23, 2010
Draco T Bastard

I don't think politicians can realistically cut conditions back enough to save serious $.

They can't but they can say that they can which is what National have been saying about private prisons. Unfortunately, there are some people who will belive them even though the evidence shows the exact opposite.

by BeShakey on September 23, 2010
BeShakey

The problem is that they need to cut serious $ to avoid all their money being tied up in prisons.  At the moment the costs of prisons are threatening to undermine the Governments ability to do other things.  So it needs to make serious savings for that reason, not just to placate the law and order tuffs.

by Bruce Thorpe on September 26, 2010
Bruce Thorpe

Last Thursday "Nine to Noon" heard from a supreme court judge in the state of Missouri who was advocating the relative costs of prison, parole and other options to be part of the report on each case that a sentencing judge must consider.

This seems to be an idea that could have a future.

For several years I have used as argument the cost of prison against the cost of an exclusive boarding school, and I am pleased the idea has entered discussions in this forum.

Rather than simply arguing  prisons are costly, I think we have to point out parole systems would be increasingly effective with increased funding, and would prove to be both more effective in reducing recidivism as well as cost effective.

There needs to be a greater focus on offenders as early as possible. At present there is no literacy programmes or even testing available to prisoners on shorter sentences.  That does not make much sense to me.

by Blair (for Mayor) Anderson on September 27, 2010
Blair (for Mayor) Anderson

The single largest factor driving the prison industry is our drug policy....

It is creating the very problem it set out to solve.

It is undoubtedly a class war, racially applied by those imbued with white privilege, and largely at the behest of the USA for whom imprisonment is the gold standard of therapy....

Civic leaders and those sceptical of the level of expenditure and thus displacement of resources that could be better spent, I would direct them to consider (even if only to read) the Prague Declaration (or similarly, the Vienna Declaration on which it is primarily based)

see http://www.praguedeclaration.com/files/catalogue/2-PrgDeclEN.pdf

 

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