Forget jails, fund hip replacements
We Kiwis think of ourselves as a fearless, intrepid people, but (a) the moral panic over meth contamination and (b) our rates of imprisonment suggest we also share a fairly high level of social anxiety.
As Sir Peter Gluckman, the government’s chief science adviser, observed in his recent report on prison reform, our crime rates had been falling since 2009, and recently leveled out. ‘‘[Yet] it is worrying that, in 2016, 71 per cent of New Zealanders thought crime was increasing.’’
New Zealand seems more fearful of crime than Finland which, by comparison, imprisons far fewer of its people.
The coalition government seems intent on breaking this pattern. Last week, it announced its decision to build a 500 bed prison at Waikeria with a 100-bed mental health unit attached - rather than the 2000-3000 bed American style mega-prison envisaged by National.
The economic cost – let alone the social cost – ofmaintaining the ‘‘lock’em up’’ approach appears to be unsustainable. As Gluckman also pointed out, the total cost of prisons has doubled since 2005, and tripled since 1996. Since 1972, criminal-justice costs have grown twice as fast as any other category of government spending and three times faster than GDP.
How come? Well, we’ve begun remanding more people in prison (rather than having them out on bail) and are keeping them in prison for longer. In combination, this has sent New Zealand’s rates of incarceration through the roof. Elsewhere, over 75 per cent of OECD countries have prison population rates below 140 per 100,000 people. Yet in February 2018, our comparable rate was sitting at 220, up from 148 at the beginning of the 21st century.
In Ireland, which has almost the same population as New Zealand, the comparable rate is only 82 per 100,000. Even these figures under-report the situation among Ma¯ori – who comprise 14.5 per cent of the general population but 50.3 per cent of the prison population, at an astronomical imprisonment rate of 660 per 100,000, as Corrections reported back in August 2013.
Of course, no-one is suggesting prisons are not necessary for serious and violent offenders. Yet earlier this year, we had nearly 3000 people on remand in prison, alongside the 7443 people sentenced for committing crimes, for a grand total of 10,394 inmates.
As Gluckman concluded, we have to consider whether the related costs ‘‘represent value for money in terms of helping victims recover, keeping communities safe, reducing offending and re-offending, and getting people off…the apparently almost inevitable path from initial offending to escalating contact and eventual imprisonment, often with recidivism. Cost benefit analyses, and research evidence, suggest they do not.’’
That reasoning explains last week’s decision to downsize the new Waikeria facility, and shift resources into prevention and rehabilitation. However, the government will also need to address the bail and parole laws, which are generating much of the current overcrowding and expense.
It will be politically dangerous to do so. Already, the Opposition has been playing the fear card about the risk of releasing people ‘‘who should be in prison.’’
New Zealand First will be a key player in any policy shift. Perhaps it can be convinced that freeing up prison spending could mean more money for hip operations.
Sir Peter Gluckman