Hard News by Russell Brown


The Very Worst

To be fair, the launch of a new Wellington branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform earlier this month was not a sexy headine story. But nonetheless, at least two national news organisations indicated they would attend the event earlier this month. In the end, none did.

The journalists who didn't come missed a courageous (and, frankly, fairly newsworthy) speech by Labour Party deputy leader Grant Robertson. Robertson spoke about his own father's experience of imprisonment, and about the "underlying issues" that prevent rehabilitation. And he made this observation:

The cold hard truth is that for many New Zealanders they believe that people are sent to prison for punishment rather than as a punishment.   Raised on a diet of sensational crime stories about our worst offenders they come to believe that the lock ‘em up theory is the only way forward for all prisoners.  The League’s goal of leading a debate on these issues has never been more important.

Last Sunday, the Star Times led with a story about the impending release of the archetypal "worst offender" -- Stewart Murray Wilson, the so-called Beast of Blenheim -- and the extreme dispatch being shown by Justice minister Judith Collins in pursuit of a constituttionally questionable law change to keep Wilson in jail.

I knew Wilson many years ago, as a neighbour. Even then, he was a highly manipulative, intimidating personality; he got people, me included, to do things for him. All this time later, bearing in mind his rape, abuse and assault of multiple women and children and the successive bleak assessments of prison psychologists, I'm not keen on the idea of him being at large either.

And I think that Howard League lobbyist Peter Williams QC doesn't particularly help by telling the Star Times he would like to hear Wilson's "side of the story" when there's a long, long paper trail containing just that. As Adam Dudding's excellent story for the Star Times' inside Focus section notes, Williams has previously offered to personally assist in Wilson's rehabilitation, as if he believed he could apply some special sauce unavailable to the professionals. I'm not sure this helps.

But it's hard not to contrast the minister's urgency in this one headline case with successive governments' lack of focus on on the broader systemic problems that, however you dice them, present a more pervasive threat to the general public.

Those problems were laid out last year by Roger Brooking in his book Flying Blind, whose subtitle is "How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct." Brooking was also interviewed in a sound story by David Lomas in The Listener. Lomas' story noted some of the damning data with which the book is crammed. Notably, this:

Despite [Corrections minister Judith Collins'] claim that reducing re­offending is a key Government priority, the amount the Corrections Department spends on drug and alcohol rehabilitation is just $3.4 million of its $1.1 billion budget. Brooking says money is rarely spent on prisoners who serve less than two years, meaning only about 5% of the 20,000 people in prison each year are able to get help.

And this:

The wave of penal populism that swept the English-speaking world in the 1980s, spurred on here by Garth McVicar’s Sensible Sentencing Trust, is now proving a “financial black hole” in the wake of the global economic crisis. It saw the incarceration rate in New Zealand rise from 119 for every 100,000 people in 1992 to 203 now. The average number of prisoners is now 8700, costing about $92,000 a year for each inmate – a total of more than $800 million. By 2017, Corrections predicts, the average prison muster will rise a further 18%.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English described prisons thus last year in his opening address at Families Commission's 50 Key Thinkers forum:

Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure. And building more of them on a large scale is something I don't think any New Zealander wants to see. They want a safer community and they want protection from the worst elements of criminal behaviour, but they don't want to be a prison colony ... It's the fastest rising cost in government in the last decade and in my view we shouldn't build any more of them.

And yet, as Brian Rudman noted in a recent column, our politicians maintain a "strange attitude ... towards incarcerating our fellow citizens". When Prime Minister John Key cheerily announced that the new privately-run prison in South Auckland would mean that decrepit old regional prisons could be shuttered, Labour Justice spokesman Charles Chauvel cried foul:

You would have thought that Mr Chauvel would share the views expressed a year ago by Finance Minister Bill English, that prisons were "a moral and fiscal failure" and the fewer the better. Yet Mr Chauvel's reaction was that "prison closure will be a big blow to regional economies" and "job losses will be significant".

He wants the old ones rehabilitated.

His concern for the economic impact on the local community reminded me of the lobbying local iwi engaged in a few years back when the new Ngawha prison was being planned. They wanted the right to run the place, drooling about the economic benefits that would flow to the tribe.

The real economics were, Rudman noted, more along these lines: 

Treasury noted that in the previous decade, our incarceration rates had leapt from 150 per 100,000 to 195 per 100,000 and that "given that New Zealand's imprisonment rate is already one of the highest in the OECD and recent increases have had little impact on recorded crime rates, it is unlikely that further increases in our imprisonment rate will be the most cost effective way to achieve lower crime rates".

It concluded that "investing in reducing the number of people who enter the criminal justice system would likely provide better value for money - and better societal outcomes - than locking up more people".

It is a queer thing: when opposing party leaders agree, when lefties are on the same page asTreasury, when the numbers so clearly say we cannot keep doing what we are doing, the loudest and most numerous voices in the news still say we should do the same, only harder.

We'll be looking at all this on Media7 this week, with Roger Brooking and another panelist to be confirmed. You're welcome to join us at tomorrow evening's recording -- just come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40. As ever, try and drop me a line to say you're coming.

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