Justice Reinvestment – the high cost of prison

I took an opportunity yesterday to speak in the Appropriations debate on the ‘moral and fiscal failure’ that is our prison system.  Vote Corrections for 2011/2012 is set at a little over $1.1 billion, about two and a half times what it was a decade ago. That is an enormous amount of money to spend on what is a fundamentally flawed enterprise, that of locking more people away for longer in the forlorn hope that somehow that will make our communities safer.

Part of the spend is committed to yet another monument to failure and lack of imagination or leadership – the proposed men’s prison at Wiri, which is budgeted at around $370 million. That figure represents about eleven year’s worth of our current annual spend on treating drug and alcohol problems for prison inmates.  This is despite the figures from Corrections indicating that alcohol and/or drugs are involved in around 80% of  crimes committed.

Reinvesting that money into community based drug, alcohol and mental health treatment programmes; on literacy and basic education; on work creation and on accommodation to assist  inmates to make the transition into society post-release, would all give a vastly better ‘bang for the buck’ and over time make our communities safer and more secure.

All the international research points that way, and it is a shame that this government and indeed the last one allowed themselves to be locked into the frame of ‘tough on crime’ rather than into a rational and compassionate approach to removing this blot on our national wellbeing.

29 Comments Posted

  1. Joomla suggests that “There are very few criminals that cannot be rehabilitated, the sooner that process starts the more likely it is to be successful” and I agree: provided that ‘rehabilitation’ does not involve serving them up more and more victims as they are test-rehabilitated by contiued re-releasing into society

  2. We, criminologists have always studied and discussed this subject. It is not an easy field, I can tell you. Our main concern, the problem we identify here is not the spent itself, but how the resources are handled. Governments do not handle properly the resources. They are experts in wasting the public money. They are the one to be blamed.

  3. @Roger Brooking

    I’ve bought the book. Would like to have a chat re speaking engagements in Australia but there’s no contact details on the book’s website. Care to drop me a line at RexWiderstrom [at] hotmail [dot] com?

  4. In regard to the high cost of prisons, Wellington alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking has offered to give a free copy of his critical expose of the justice system to every member of Parliament. His new book is called Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct: http://www.flyingblind.co.nz

    Brooking asked Chester Borrows (National), Grant Robertson (Labour) and Kennedy Graham (Greens) to meet him on the steps of parliament on September 13 to accept copies on behalf of their respective MPS.

    Grant Robertson and Kennedy Graham agreed. So did Mr Borrows – at first. But after consultations with caucus colleagues, he changed his mind. In a churlish display of ingratitude, the National party has refused to accept copies of the book out of fear that the title of the book is too provocative. Mr Borrows wrote to Mr Brooking saying:

    “I think the subtitle of the book runs counter to the current achievements in Corrections…. No matter how you may mitigate the subtitle within the pages of the book, the immediate proposition will be what is reported and perceived. I believe that appearing to receive the books will look like an endorsement of a publication which sets out to be provocative and will be seen as counter to any rehabilitative work being done in prisons presently.”

    Is this a classic case of judging a book by its cover? Readers can decide for themselves.

    Unfortunately, such anti-intellectualism is rampant in New Zealand politics and undermines the use of academic research and the development of evidenced-based policy. The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, seems to agree. Sir Peter is quoted in Flying Blind saying that New Zealand is driven by a No 8 wire mentality.

    Brooking makes the case that Garth McVicar is the chief proponent of the No 8 wire mentality in this country. The problem is McVicar is a farmer – with no qualifications in law, sociology, psychology or criminology. Flying Blind describes the links between Garth McVicar and the National party and shows how this sycophantic relationship is responsible for much of New Zealand’s expensive, ‘lock ’em up’ approach to penal policy.

  5. We assume that prison systems have the ability to correct the prisoners but that we have nothing when they are released, leaving the same or worse, it’s really urgent to implement systems that really help them, I have heard that many have benefited having spiritual education programs, vocational workshops, mental health is also very important.
    I have a lot of attention this subject almost nobody talks about this social problem.

  6. nznative has a great point, alcohol is a huge issue that must be dealt with. I am not talking about putting a ban on it but more informed education and possibly increasing the tax rate on the stuff would aim the growing crisis that it is helping to cause.

  7. Assessment of the ultimate economic cost of bullets tends to be related to whether they are heading towards you or away from you. Firing them in one direction also tends to cause them to be fired in the other.

  8. Stop making the solution complex, bullets are the answer

    1) they are cheap
    2) they end the offending permenantly
    3) they act as a deterrant to other people thinking of committing a crime

    And if #3 doesnt work then its backed up by #2….BRILLIANT !!! I say.

  9. Investing more funds into the community for education, especially helping those who are underprivileged would be a big help. Many of those who are imprisoned come from single-parent families, and they are exposed to rampant drug and alcohol abuse. Education and exposure to good role models would have a positive impact.

  10. What gives me the shits is people talking about “alcohol and/or drugs “.

    Alcohol is the number one crime causing and prison filling drug.

    If a prisoner is in jail for a crime commited under the influence of a “drug”, 9 times out of 10 OR MORE the drug will be alcohol.

    The other prisoners doing time for “drug” offences are there for selling or ‘supplying’ drugs which are often safer and softer than the drug alcohol.

    Its the piss which the main driver of crime and filler of jails.

    “Alcohol & drugs” is a statement showing politics perverting facts.

    It also has elements of “cult thinking”.

    Cults are based on a non-truth or lie.

    ” Drugs and Alcohol” is a lie in that it seperates the drug alcohol from all the others.

    I’ll give you a clue …….

    Alcoholics are drug addicts ……. get it ?

  11. Photo.

    Do you really think teachers don’t already know who needs extra help.

    The problem is it is not available when needed. No amount of throwing money at testing to tell us what we already know is going to actually make a difference.

    NACT standards is a typical politicians answer. Appear to be doing something because the real solutions would involve actually changing the status quo.
    The privileged are happy not to have poor children able to compete with their little darlings for jobs, anyway.

    We need to put time effort and money into the causes of underachievement. Including poverty, housing, expectations, the “social contract” and lack of food.

    Extra help to those who are falling through the cracks at the beginning of their schooling would have been a much better use of 35mil.
    Like, not dropping kids from remedial reading after their funded six months. Just when it starts to be effective at the moment their funding runs out and they have to leave the program..

  12. Interesting comments from Rex – “properly incentivised” is the key of course. If the private prison is a business whose incentive is to make profit (the definition of business) then repeat business is good.

    If, however, it is a community-based or other non-profit organisation which can hire or develop the expertise to run a rehabilitative prison, then running low on clientele is good as the incentive is a safer and happier community.

    Some years ago, when this community was protesting against the (Labour) government’s plans to build the prison at Ngawha, Ngatihine through Kevin Prime in partnership with an Australian firm put forward a plan to the government to set up an iwi-based prison which would offer all the things you’d think a good prison should: drug and alcohol counselling, training, work, mainstream education, cultural education and at the same time involve the community in working with the prisoners.

    Kevin’s idea was that eventually it would morph from a prison to a wananga and become a valuable resource for all of Tai Tokerau.

    The government turned it down, choosing instead to fight with the locals for four years and finally “winning” in the Environment Court.

    It would be worth having a conversation with Kevin Prime about this too, David.

  13. A test that fails 60% of students will be useful for measuring the performance of the lowest achieving 20%. Quack.

    Teachers find it difficult to identify which students cannot read. Quack.

    Giving these children lots of tests and reminding them how poorly they are achieving will help them learn better. Quack.

  14. David Clendon says “This is despite the figures from Corrections indicating that alcohol and/or drugs are involved in around 80% of crimes committed.”

    Lets not forget that a similar percentage of inmates are effectively illiterate.

    And attempts to better identify and help the 20% of children who are failed by schools (and leave without learning to read or write) are being shot down.

    As for the prison system, we need a system with clear set of grades. 10 being the harshest for the worst crimes, so prisoners have work their way to each lesser grade by showing improvements.

    They work their way to the lowest grades with good behaviour, completing education and training initiatives, and showing they are ready to work and live back in the outside world.

    The lowest grades have much better conditions, day release etc, or even pd, so prisoners are normallised back into (and ready for) the outside world, instead of being dumped back into it without the skills needed.

    Just like good behaviour will work a prisoner up the ladder, the wrong behaviour will send them in the other dirrection. The ONLY way out is showing improving behaviour and skills needed to fit into society.

    90% of prisoners have the ability to reform. The other 10% can be kept locked up.

  15. M. Curmudgeon – “Recidivist offenders destroy lives and the fabric of society”

    Our society destroys lives doesn’t it? … perhaps the fabric is in serious need of repair?

  16. If its true that 80% of crime is alcohol & drug related, maybe thats the reason why this Govt. is so hesitant to move on drug law reform ?
    They are talking about privatising prisons. The more ‘offenders’ the higher the prison business will be. Im sure the majority will be drug offenders.
    It currently costs $90k/year to keep someone in prison (so I believe) surely that money would be better spent in drug & alcohol rehab. (outside the prison system).
    I remember hearing an interview with a ‘top cop’ who absolutely refused to acknowledge that drug rehab. was possible without police/corrections intervention.
    A shift in thinking maybe the way forward on this ?!! Kia-ora

  17. Well said David. Justice Reinvestment is a major part of the research being undertaken by the Institute of Restorative Justice and Penal Reform. If you want to develop policies in this area, please get in touch.

    Given the failure of most prisons to rehabilitate what, then, is the Greens’ response to the fact that the private prison here in Western Australia, run by Serco, has many innovative programs with results far exceeding those of state-run prisons; is seen by inmates as the “best” prison in WA, with many requesting not to be transferred to a lower-security facility when eligible; and is regularly praised by the independent Office of the Custodial Inspector who, on last inspection commented that:

    …corporate profits and savings to the state/taxpayer are not being achieved at the cost of service delivery… Acacia has reached a very high base… it is clear Acacia’s performance is at least equal to the best public sector prisons in the State and in many respects superior

    As someone who works with and advocates for prisoners, I feel the Inspector is being too kind to state prisons – Acacia is head and shoulders above them.

    Do the Greens accept that a private operator, properly incentivised, can and usually will outperform a state run prison? And if so, will your policy commit to privatising prisons (while of course reducing the number of people held in them where possible)?

  18. The problem with the current crop of prisons is that they don’t address the problem of crime. What prisons do is convert someone who has committed a crime into a criminal. The current prisons are the worst possible answer, but, as the Curmudgeon rightly notes, they do perform the function of keeping those who do commit crimes off our doorsteps, for a while at least.

    The only sort of offenders that you put into the current sort of prison where offenders get to co-mingle is offenders that you are never going to let out, ever. Everyone who is in for a “stretch” should be in solitary confinement and never get to mix with their offending peers.

  19. Jackals position, that “it’s about ensuring that people do not resort to crime in the first [place]” is not what I am arguing about, as I thought I made clear when I responed ‘of course’, above.

    The issue is the recidivist offender, for whom Jackal appears to suggest rehabilitation should involve inflicting/testing/experimenting with ongoing releases (and ongoing new crimes as each ‘experiment’ fails and another vistim is created. My position is that repeat offenders should not be released until society is sure, ‘beyond resoanable doubt’ that the pattern of recidivist offendeing has been broken.

    The hand-wringers position appears to be ‘let them out, and lets see. Ooops, another victim. Repeat’. My position is more intensive, probably more expensive, and better for society.

    When Jackal notes “There are very few criminals that cannot be rehabilitated” there is some truth in that, but the primary causal factor in ceasing recidivist offedning does not appear to be punative imprisonment (which is not what I suggesting, for naybody who chooses to mis-state my position) nor is it the handwringers ‘let them out, and lets see. Ooops, another victim. Repeat’ approach, but it is simply that they get old and ‘grow-up’. Invaribaly the repeat offenders that are ‘rehabilitated under the handwringers approach simply ‘grow-up’. And have created many more victims along the way.

  20. It’s not about “throwing open the doors” Misanthropic Curmudgeon, it’s about ensuring that people do not resort to crime in the first.

    Increased prison sentences have relatively no effect in terms of deterrence. What does effectively deter criminal behaviour is financial stability, inclusive societies and instilling a sense of belonging.

    Sweeping criminals under the carpet so you can feel all safe and secure does nothing to remedy the problem. It also supports the premiss that society should discard people it deems undesirable.

    There are very few criminals that cannot be rehabilitated, the sooner that process starts the more likely it is to be successful.

    A high incarceration rate is a sign that a society is failing.

  21. David notes of rehabililitation that “sadly that opportuntiy is seldom taken. Nearly 80% of inmates serve six months or less. Corrections rarely offers any rehab to inmates with sentences less than two years.”

    This is in part my point: First offences for assults and robbings et.al. should not be met with lame ‘community detentions’ and the like, wher the criminals actions are effectively ignored and the criminal is free to associate with those very people who led him/her to that position. Remove the offender from that environment, incarerate them for a sustained period, and actively address their bahaviours.

    And if they do it again, they do hard time.

  22. Kerry asked “Wouldn’t you rather spend a little bit in someones formative years to ensure they are part of society, and do not begin a life a crime” and the obvious answer is ‘of course’

    Note that nothing I said precludes what Kerry said. But once the path of offending has been trodden, my argument is tha society needs to be firm. The criminal should get their warning (or strike, if one wants to employ an aspect of current discourse) and then should offending continue its (say) 10 years in the slammer.

    Recidivist offenders destroy lives and the fabric of society. To continue to release habitual offenders is to condone their actions and feed them more victims, and to destroy more lives. The people who want to do this are complicit in the crimes that are committed.

  23. “Imprisonment acts to remove the criminal from potentail victims, and provides the opportunity for intensive councelling and bahavioural interventions.”

    I agree it provides the opportunity for those things, but sadly that opportuntiy is seldom taken. Nearly 80% of inmates serve six months or less. Corrections rarely offers any rehab to inmates with sentences less than two years. Typically a first time / short term inmate is kept locked up with no rehab; treatment or even assessdment of what factors caused him to offend.

  24. MS. Wouldn’t you rather spend a little bit in someones formative years to ensure they are part of society, and do not begin a life a crime and drugs.

    Or do you take such a sadistic delight in imprisoning people, you want to continue spending millions on crime and its effects, including ever expanding prisons.

  25. I have no problems whatsoever with a ‘high’ incarceration rate, and the handwringers who want to throw open the cell doors are merely creating more victims. A high incareration rate is a sign of a functioning judical system addressing recidivist offending: that is a good thing.

    Imprisonment acts to remove the criminal from potentail victims, and provides the opportunity for intensive councelling and bahavioural interventions. Accordingly, prison (with intentsive councelling and bahavioural interventions) should be used much earlier in a criminals careers – before the patterns of recidiviust offendeding and disregard for the law and vistoims are cemented into the criominals patterns of behaviour.

    And for those criminals who choose to reoffend despite intentsive councelling and bahavioural interventions ought to be removed from society for very long periods (ie decades) of time.

    I’d rather pay taxes to have a recidivist offender prosecuted and locked up for 10 years on his second offence, that pay taxes to have him in community detention, home detention, periodic detention, and finally 6 mionths in the clink for the six different offences in those same 10 years.

    Thise who whine about loocking recidivist opffenders up, and second chances coose to overlook that the offender has already had half a dozen second chances, and by releasing the offender again they are just feeding the offender more victims, and are thereby complicit in the crime themselves.

  26. The problem with “tough on crime” is that we have never had a proper public discourse. It suits politicians to have crime as a vote getter, just by “fanning the flames” of public perceptions.

    When someone, such as a senior court Judge, dares to try and discuss the issues reasonably, they are censored.


    “I have given the whole paper here as it is hard to find in the places it should have been published”.

    What really got to me while High school teaching was the kids who were heading for a life of crime, drugs or welfare who could have easily been turned around by a bit of help in primary school.
    At high school with effectively 2 minutes per child, in each lesson, it is frustratingly impossible to give them the help they deserve and need.

    Spending on increased access to already successful programs like remedial reading would have made a huge difference.
    A few thousand dollars per child early in their education.
    Instead of $90k to put them in prison later, or instead of 35 million on National standards to tell teachers what they already know.

    Government emphasis in keeping work in NZ, instead of arming police and building more prisons, would help also

  27. Does that “tough on crime” policy drive even gain votes at all? Or is it yet another fallacy just like the idea that locking somebody up is going to rehabilitate them. I mean sure, we need prison for some offenders, but without proper remedial measures prisons are a complete waste of time. Corrections may as well give offenders a course on how to do crime properly and then prod them with a stick. If prisons worked, we wouldn’t have such high re-offending levels.

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