In many respects, Judith Collins has been the worst Minister of Justice and Corrections New Zealand has ever had. She had to go – even if that changes absolutely nothing about how the country deals with the drivers of crime or the growing prison population. And it won't.
The Corrections Department puts out a monthly magazine called, guess what – Corrections Works. This pithy little propaganda sheet provides a pat on the back to any Corrections staff who perform up to expectations or do anything reasonably well in the previous month. The magazine also contains a monthly Message from the Minister, in which – just before Bill English gave her the push – Collins confesses that under her control, Corrections hasn’t been working at all.
For years, the Crusher has consistently claimed the Department is “extremely focused on reducing reoffending” but in Corrections Works, she reveals with great embarrassment, that:
“The target of reducing reoffending by 25% by 2017 was a laudable aim… (but) progress is slow, the reoffending rate has dropped by (only) 5.6%.”
Of course we’re not told that the figure of 5.6% only applies to the first 12 months after release from prison. Beyond that there is no reduction whatsoever and 50% of inmates are back inside within five years. So this is Collins’ most fundamental failure – making bold claims about reducing reoffending – but not being able to perform.
Overcrowding and a crisis in the prison population has contributed to these poor results. We now have over 10,000 Kiwis locked up – an all-time high. This mass incarceration is almost entirely due to Judith Collins, who as Minister of Justice from 2011 to 2014, introduced a raft of ‘tough on crime’ bills. She pandered to ACT by passing the three strikes law; botched up sweeping changes to bail laws breaching the Bill of Rights in the process; and raised the bar for prisoners seeking parole so they end up serving more time in prison and struggle to reintegrate afterwards.
Although all categories of prisoners are up, the biggest increase has been in the number held on remand – Kiwis that have not yet been found guilty of the crimes with which they are charged.
These legislative changes have put the prison system under enormous pressure. This pressure cooker has had the biggest impact on Mt Eden prison where most remand prisoners are held.
There is also no getting away from the fact that Collins was the Minister in charge of Corrections when Mt Eden was contracted out to Serco, a private British company with a well-established track record of failure. We all know how that turned out. Poor old Sam Lotu-Liga carried the can for the fight club debacle, but there is no doubt he was set up to fail by Collins. As The Spinoff argues in this excellent analysis of Judith Collins’ poor performance:
“It is the Minister of Justice who sets the agenda and the policies for the justice system. Corrections just wipes up the mess that follows.”
Before Bill English gave her the boot as Corrections Minister, Collins got to announce one last massive mistake. Displaying her punitive personality for all to see, she proclaimed (in Corrections Works) she “was pleased to announce that the government has approved plans to increase prison capacity by 1800 beds” and that the Government was going to spend (in reality waste) $2.5 billion of the taxpayers’ money doing so. Collins was pleased because she continues to believe that prison deters criminal offending – and because she has never bothered to read the criminology research which overwhelmingly shows that prison acts more like a university for crime than a deterrent.
The investment approach to justice
Bill English, on the other hand, believes that early intervention and targeting dysfunctional or struggling families is the best way to help at-risk kids before they become the next generation of prisoners. He quotes research which shows that on average, children brought up in at risk environments will cost the state $270,000 over their lifetime compared with just $33,000 for those who are fortunate enough to be born into pro-social environments that are relatively risk free.
English has the support of the new Justice Minister Amy Adams who says the Government doesn’t have “vast amounts of money to throw at new things”, but was going to look at social and mental health interventions with at risk families to see if they would make a difference.
Ironically, the reason the Government doesn’t have vast amounts of money to address the drivers of crime is because they keep spending it on new prisons. And this is why English had to fire Collins. Using her roles as Justice and Corrections Minister, Collins has been taking the country in a direction that her boss clearly doesn’t want to go.
So does this mean that as Prime Minister, English is now going to cancel the new prison and put the $2.5 billion into social justice investment? Not bloody likely. Not unless he wants to lose the next election as badly as he did in 2002. For Government, holding onto power is always more important than implementing evidence based policy that might actually make a difference.
There is a cheaper option. The government could simply repeal Collins' Bail Amendment Act and reduce the prison population overnight. That would save $2.5 billion at the stroke of a pen.
What are the chances of that happening? None whatsoever.
That would be an admission of failure. For politicians, sticking to your guns – even when you know you’re heading in the wrong direction – seems to be far more important than admitting you made a mistake.
It’s much easier to find a scapegoat and blame it all on him, or her. Who fits the Bill? Judith Collins, of course.