Prisons are not the Tardis - when they fill up, then what do we do? We have to start letting people go.

Back in 2009, the Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, gave a speech on criminal justice matters that caused a brief flurry of excitment and earned her a slap-down from the Minister of Justice, Simon Power. (I posted on it at the time here.)

The bit that got the most attention was this paragraph:

My last suggestion may be controversial. I do not know whether it is practical or politically acceptable, but I think it needs to be considered. We need to look at direct tools to manage the prison population if overcrowding is not to cause significant safety and human rights issues. Other countries use executive amnesties to send prisoners into the community early to prevent overcrowding. Such solutions will not please many. And I am not well placed to assess whether they are feasible. But the alternatives and the costs of overcrowding need to be weighed.

At the time, Simon Power was very quick to dismiss any suggestion that his Government might even contemplate such a policy. And fair enough, too - New Zealand is not (yet) at the point where the conditions in our prisons are such that the safety and human rights issues she refers to demand such actions be taken.

However, this decision of the US Supreme Court rather bears out Dame Sian's warning about where you end up if you keep jamming more and more people into jail. Its just ordered California to release more than 30,000 prisoners, to bring its prison population down to a mere 137.5% of capacity. That's right - even after letting the population equivalent of Blenheim out the doors, California's prisons will still contain far, far more prisoners than they were built to hold.

Which suggests two things to me. Using US penal policy as a model for New Zealand carries costs that will only become apparent in the future. And putting people in prison for having or selling drugs is a really, really dumb idea.

Comments (22)

by Iain Butler on May 24, 2011
Iain Butler

New Zealand is not (yet) at the point where the conditions in our prisons are such that the safety and human rights issues she refers to demand such actions be taken.

Why wait until overcrowding spits out surplus prisoners? Why not make an effort to stop people going into prison in the first place?

While those with an unusual defenition of the word "sensible" keep running our justice policy, we'll never actually get to the root causes of crime, or make our communities any safer.

by Ross Bell on May 24, 2011
Ross Bell

Hey Andrew - I'm keen to get in touch with you - can you flick me a line?

by Andrew Geddis on May 24, 2011
Andrew Geddis

Iain,

That was the thrust of Dame Sian's speech ...

Ross,

Done and done. I'll take your email down now.

by Flat Eric on May 24, 2011
Flat Eric

putting people in prison for having or selling drugs is a really, really dumb idea

So what would you propose for a person that sells hard drugs to a young adult, who subsequently dies from an overdose? If we legalise possession and sale, is this simply a product liablity issue?  Just need a warning label; and ACC picks up the bill?

 

by on May 24, 2011
Anonymous

There is always going to be debate about prisons and prisoners spannning the spectrum from bleeding heart liberals to the flogging and hanging brigade.  The debate we don't have is what happens to people in prison.

A case in point - Junior Bailey Kurariki,  In the state's custody from the age of 13 - he's back in jail.

New Zealand has a recidivism rate of about 75% last time I saw the figures.  If correct, this means of every four prisoners released, three of them finish up back inside.  I don't think conditions are that good that people prefer to be inside than out. 

What do we do them while in jail?  We (that is, the state) have complete control of them 24 hours a day.  How come they are no better when they leave than when they came in?  Dame Sian's suggestion may help overcrowding, but releasing unrehabilitated prisoners early won't solve the long term problem.  Its like taking the plug out of the bath with the tap running.  Wouldn't it be more productive to use the fact that we control their lives while they're in prison and put some effort into making sure they don't come back when released?

I saw a poster once that said "If prisons worked, we wouldn't need them."   

by Andrew Geddis on May 24, 2011
Andrew Geddis

SPM,

If you really are interested in how we might profitably begin to move from treating drugs as a criminal justice issue to more of a public health issue (rather than just trolling), go read this. And if you really want to reduce deaths from overdoses, consider Portugal.

by Draco T Bastard on May 24, 2011
Draco T Bastard

@SPM

You're making the mistake of assuming all drugs are the same. If we legalised (put on the same controls as alcohol) marijuana we'd get a lot of people out of jail and save a lot of money as the police wouldn't be chasing after it allowing them to concentrate on other crimes.

Keep the hard drugs under strict controls as they are now.

@Richard Davies

We should concentrate on rehabilitation when we have criminals under our control. It makes sense to try to keep them out of prison as it's cheaper and would usually be far more productive.

I also think that we should keep non-violent criminals out of prison anyway. They're haven't shown themselves to be a danger to the community and prisons tend to be a classroom for enforcing and improving criminal tendencies. Make it home detention and/or community service, tracking device and a rehabilitation course.

by DeepRed on May 25, 2011
DeepRed

"Which suggests two things to me. Using US penal policy as a model for New Zealand carries costs that will only become apparent in the future"

Like a sequel to 1981? Or even a Los Angelean fireball of anger?

It goes to show that law and order politics has no interest whatsoever in rehabbing crims so that they don't reoffend - the typical response is "once an offender, always an offender!" Rather it's really a form of soft apartheid - not in a racial sense, but a class sense.

by MikeM on May 25, 2011
MikeM

@Richard, with that 75% figure do you have any idea of how many are discrete re-offenders?  In other words, what proportion of discrete people in prison keep coming back?

If I understand correctly then much of that 75% of releases would be made up of the same people being released (and coming back) over and over, which would mean quite a lot more than 25% of prisoners will be released for good.

by Flat Eric on May 25, 2011
Flat Eric

@ Draco

No, I'm not making the mistake of assuming all drugs are the same: that was my point.

 

Andrew said "putting people in prison for having or selling drugs is a ... dumb idea".  No distinction made, so I made one.

 

There may be a case for not doing this for some users of some drugs; but even in the Portugal example cited by Andrew, penalties for trafficking remain the same: incarceration.  Singapore, where I have lived for a number of years, makes the distinction - trafficking gets death but they will work to rehabilitate users: where a person has a small amount, because more than a small amount means you are a trafficker.  Same as Portgual it seems.

Are we really incarcerating large numbers of small-time users of marijuana now though?  Would not doing so make such a big difference to the prison muster?  Are people convicted and sentenced for small-time use not also being imprisoned for related criminal offending?

@Andrew.

Not a troll, I hope?

 

by Andrew Geddis on May 25, 2011
Andrew Geddis

SPM,

Fair call - in my brief, passing remark I didn't  differentiate between forms of drugs. And selling (as opposed to possessing) some limited forms of very crap drugs perhaps should remain a criminal offence (P for instance ...) - that's a complex question of harm reduction and the relative likelihood of successfully restricting availability vs. the consequences of driving a market underground. But the assumption that having more than a certain amount of even a crap drug makes you a trafficker is a bad one to apply - especially when you're killing the offender!

That said, on this issue I do tend toward the libertarian end of the spectrum. Hell, I think I even agree with Milton Friedman!

by The Falcon on May 25, 2011
The Falcon

Agree that drugs should not be a criminal matter, although it wouldn't make much difference to the prison population.

Have you considered that tougher sentencing might actually result in fewer people being imprisoned, because they would be deterred from committing crime in the first place?

by Andrew Geddis on May 25, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"Have you considered that tougher sentencing might actually result in fewer people being imprisoned, because they would be deterred from committing crime in the first place?"

That's the theory, I guess. Any evidence on this ... anyone?

by The Falcon on May 25, 2011
The Falcon

Let's not bother with the ritual whereby I find several studies supporting my point, you counter with several studies that say the opposite, and no one changes their mind...

Do you genuinely believe deterrence doesn't work? Even a little? Or is this just one of those political things where you pretend there's no empirical evidence proving something you don't like (e.g. that raising the youth minimum wage increases youth unemployment)?

by on May 25, 2011
Anonymous

If you look at the prison [one of the worst on the planet at the time] in the video on the link below, you will see that the harsh coditions do not deter the inmates from returning to prison. The only thing that does is workable rehabilitation, something we haven't got in our prisons [See Greg Newbold clip below]

Second Chance Program [Criminal Rehabilitation] Video
https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/video/video.php?v=129242447257 800 inmates at a time in one program. 99% on drugs. Recidivism rate is 10%.

The same program is being implemented throughout indonesia's 365 prisons

Criminon Indonesia
http://www.rehabnz.co.nz/pages/criminon-indonesia.html
The Program is a unique non-religious and non-medical prison-based crime and drug rehabilitation model. The six to eight-month program uses no alternate drugs and through education, nutrition and body disintoxification achieves a high rate of success. The inmates are put through the program.
The best of them are then trained to run the program inside the prison. New teams of inmates are then trained and sent out to start the program in other prisons, making expansion rapid
and cost effective. When they leave prison they are certified rehailitation experts and can start the program up in the community

Greg Newbold
"Another one bites the dust: New Zealand's latest experiment in criminal rehabilitation".
Associate Professor Greg Newbold, School of Sociology and Anthropology
Abstract
Since 1910, New Zealand has been engaged in a constant search to find a method of rehabilitating criminals that really works.
Biography
Greg Newbold is an associate professor in the School of Sociology and Anthropology.
This paper is taken from his most recent book, 'The Problem of Prisons', which is a comprehensive review of the New Zealand prison system and its litany of failed attempts to rehabilitate criminals.

by Andrew Geddis on May 26, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"Do you genuinely believe deterrence doesn't work?"

What do you mean by "deterrence"? Insofar as those engaging in criminal activity display cost-benefit reasoning, I suspect (as we're not bothering with evidence) that it is the perception of the chance of getting caught that matters more than the ultimate sanction. So, I am suspicious of the claim that the threat of greater punishment will produce much effect on criminal behaviour as it does not seem to tally with the nature of most crimes (impetuous and/or poorly thought through).

But, why would I refuse to accept evidence to the contrary? For example, I think you may well be right that getting rid of the youth minimum wage increased youth unemployment ... there's a pretty strong correlation here. Not proof of causation, of course ... but still relevant.

by Ben Curran on May 26, 2011
Ben Curran

I'd rather like The Falcon to indulge in the ritual of showing us several studies that show that deterrence stops people committing the crime in the first place. I'd also rather like to see some studies that show deterrence reduces the harm to to community or costs society less in the long term. I've read much that indicates that decriminalization of possession is a better thing in the long run, I'd be quite interested to read the case for deterrence. I've yet to see any credible reports that show it's the case.

And to go way back to SPM's original comment - If you legalise sale and possession, it becomes a personal responsibility issue. I don't believe the breweries are held to account when alcohol overdoses or related injuries are presented at hospitals, as best as I am aware these are the responsibility if the people who have unwisely used a legal product.

by The Falcon on May 26, 2011
The Falcon

Actually, a cost-benefit analysis right now would be "hmm, if I get caught for burgling a house 30 times, I will serve all the sentences concurrently. So once I've burgled one house and thus exposed myself to jail time, the following 29 burglaries have almost no risk."

In the end this comes down to socialist vs right-wing worldview. Left-wingers don't believe people respond to incentives, and thus don't believe longer sentences affect peoples' choices. Communists also believed people would work hard with no incentive other than the satisfaction of serving glorious Comrade Stalin.

by Iain Butler on May 26, 2011
Iain Butler

While we're Falcon-bashing: what about the role of alcohol in crime?

Alcohol famously dulls the part of the brain that deals with consequence. Consequences, such as jail time, then cease to be factor in preventing certain types of offending, so Falcon's deterrence argument falls over where acolhol is a major factor.

But how much can alcohol really take the blame for criminal offending? Wellington police have estiamted 90 percent of weekend arrests are alcohol related. The UK Home Office reckons 88 percent of criminal damage and 78 percent of assualt are alcohol related. But since we're not involving the ritual of providing information to back our arguments, i'll just have to suffice myself with - a lot.

by Andrew Geddis on May 26, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"Communists also believed people would work hard with no incentive other than the satisfaction of serving glorious Comrade Stalin."

Oh ... so all those Gulags were just for shits and giggles, huh? For someone who purports to be sensible, you can be a real dick sometimes.

by The Falcon on May 27, 2011
The Falcon

IainB: Alcohol is just liquid in a bottle. People are responsible for their own actions, and if they have pent-up anger they should do the responsible thing and not drink.

Intoxication as a criminal defence is like "I had a bad childhood" as a defence. I.e. retarded and thankfully fairly ineffective.

by Iain Butler on May 27, 2011
Iain Butler

People are responsible for their actions. No argument there. That's why they go to jail when they do bad stuff.

The point is, if you think longer or tougher or more arbitrary jail sentences or conditions act as a deterrent, you need to account for the things people do (and are responsible for) which counteract their ability to think rationally, and respond to deterrents. Like getting pissed.

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