New Zealand has fallen prey to penal populism: our prison population is at an all time high – driven by victims rights groups and the public's moral panic over violent crime

In 2011, Bill English said that prisons were “a moral and fiscal failure” and New Zealand should never build another one. Well said – and achievable – but only if Governments stop pandering to the Sensible Sentencing Trust and the moral panic manufactured by the media whenever a violent crime occurs.

Later that year, the Government set the Corrections Department a goal – to reduce reoffending by 25% (by 2017).  Perhaps Mr English thought that if reoffending declined, so would the prison population – or at least it wouldn’t go up.

In June, the government had to admit it was failing to meet its reoffending target and that "it’ll be very hard to get there" by next year. Reoffending has been reduced a little (by about 8%) – but only in the first 12 months after completion of a rehabilitation programme.  After that, the reoffending rate is back to normal – which means 52% of prisoners return to prison within five years. The long-term reoffending rate has not changed in years.

In October this year, Mr English had to admit defeat on the prison population as well.

The prison population has hit an all-time high and the government says it is going to increase prison capacity, to the cost of the taxpayer of an additional $1 billion. Imagine what the education sector could do with another billion dollars – more teachers, better pay, smaller class sizes, with staff satisfaction and retention improved. Imagine what the health sector could do with another billion dollars – reduced waiting lists, better access to mental health care and addiction treatment, better support for those on low incomes and a reduction in New Zealand growing poverty statistics – all of which would likely lead to less crime.

We have to provide the capacity - yeah right!

Announcing his Government’s moral and fiscal failure, Finance Minister Bill English contradicted his 2011 statement about no more prisons saying: “This is something that has to be done. We have to provide the capacity.”

No – we don’t. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this increase in our prison population. It is entirely the result of penal policies passed by both Labour and National governments over the years – which have been getting more and more draconian. In a press release in 2002, Tougher laws driving up prison population, Justice Minister Phil Goff said tougher sentencing and parole laws enacted by the government would increase the prison population by over 20% in the next seven years.

This year Judith Collins said the continuing increase was due to tougher laws passed by National. She said criminals are getting longer sentences but that the muster blowout since 2014 has mostly been driven by a 40% increase in the number of prisoners on remand. That blowout stems from changes to the Bail, Sentencing and Victim’s Rights Acts.

There is absolutely nothing inevitable about this. Prof John Pratt of Victoria University would say it is entirely due to political populism – whereby politicians take guidance from victims groups and the media instead of from criminologists and justice sector experts.

How Finland cut its prison population

Finland is an example of what can happen when politicians listen to academics. In 2006 in Little done to break cycle of offending, Simon Collins wrote:

“Finland has cut its imprisonment rate by two-thirds in the past 50 years, with no apparent effect on the crime rate.”

He quotes Tapio Lappi-Seppala of the Finnish Institute of Legal Policy who said Finnish judges, lawyers and politicians were ashamed of their high rate of imprisonment compared with other Nordic countries which had quite low rates.

In the 1960s, on their own initiative, judges started imposing shorter sentences on a variety of offenders. In the 1970s, politicians backed up the judges with two key law changes: imprisonment for theft and drink driving were abolished and replaced by fines and ‘conditional imprisonment’ – offenders stayed out of jail as long as they did not reoffend. Then in 1994, a new sentence of community service was introduced to replace short jail terms.

The result was a dramatic drop in the rate of imprisonment to 66 inmates for every 100,000 people. This proves it can be done. During this same period (1960 to now) New Zealand’s rate of imprisonment has gone up and up. In 2016, it topped 200 people per 100,000 – four times higher than Finland’s. This puts us on a par with Mexico (204) and way above Australia (152), the United Kingdom (146), China (118) and Canada (114). Altogether New Zealand locks up more people per head of population than 150 other countries.

Dr Liam Martin: “Its time to start making different choices.”

Attempts have even been made in New Zealand to turn this around. In Lessons from youth justice for our prison policyVUW criminology lecturer Dr Liam Martin notes:

“It’s time to start making different choices. Our history of youth justice is a reminder we have changed paths before: in less than a decade between 1988 and 1996, we cut the number of children in state institutions from 2000 to fewer than 100.”

If we can reduce the number of children in state institutions, surely we reduce the number of adults in our prisons.

Spending $1 billion to increase prison capacity is an irresponsible waste of taxpayers’ money. It would be much better spent in the education and health sectors – where it would actually contribute to reduced offending.

Comments (8)

by KJT on October 31, 2016

National relies on a group of about 18% of likely swing voters to remain in power. Polling obviously shows that "tough on crime" is a hot button issue with that group.

Yet another good argument for direct democracy, instead of catering to the right wing lunatic fringe. To keep one of our set of rotating Dictators in power.

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2016
Roger Brooking

Just to clarify. The Government is not just increasing prison capacity. It is going to build a new prison on the Waikeria site - to be run in a Public Private Partnership (presumably by Serco). This is what makes a mockery of Bill English's statement in 2011 that prisons are a 'moral and fiscal failure' and NZ should never build another one.

With a capacity for 1,500 inmates, this will become the biggest prison in New Zealand. 

by Alan Johnstone on October 31, 2016
Alan Johnstone

<p>When I read this article, I'm struck by it's authors contempt for the voters of New Zealand. Ignore what the plebs want, just listen to the experts. &nbsp;We know better.</p><p>It talks about "political populism" but it really sneering at democracy and the voters concerns.&nbsp;Prison population is growing because jailing criminals is popular, especially among the poor who suffer from crime on a day to day basis.</p><p>The political climate has changed, the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump are the most visible examples. People will no longer be told what to do by the establishment</p><p>&nbsp;</p>

by Roger Brooking on October 31, 2016
Roger Brooking

@Alan. This is not about ignoring voters. Its about paying too much attention to one particular group. New Zealand cannot afford to become a prison colony at the expense of the voters who want better schools and a better health system. In any society there are competing interests; Governments are elected to lead not pander to the media.

by Antoine on November 01, 2016

It would be really interesting to have an off the record chat with English to find out what led him to lower his expectations.


by Roger Brooking on November 01, 2016
Roger Brooking

@Antonie:  Judith Collins I expect. She seems to like locking people up.

She still believes in deterrence even though criminologists say prison acts more as a university for crime rather than a deterrent. According to a Stuff editorial, "Reports of her announcement (about the new prison) even implied a level of empire building." 

by Antoine on November 01, 2016

I really doubt it, I don't think English gives a damn what Collins thinks.

I suspect he tried one approach, something turned him off it and he's now taking a newline. But what.


by Roger Brooking on November 02, 2016
Roger Brooking

Collective responsibility of Cabinet. Bill has to go with the majority view - which is influenced by Collins on this issue, as she's the Minister responsible.

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