David Clendon

The high cost of bad policy

by David Clendon

Today I spoke in the budget debate, and pointed to the craziness of continuing to spend over $1.1 billion dollars a year to keep more people in prison for longer.

In a pre-budget release, we learned that  $65 million of operating expenditure from Vote Corrections would be ‘reprioritised’ over four years in a way that we are told will reduce reoffending, reduce the prison muster, will provide more rehabilitation and reintegration services, and improve access to drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

Minister Tolley told us and I quote :”It’s time to get serious about breaking this vicious cycle of prison and reoffending.  Offenders need to be made accountable for their crimes.  But while they are in prison and upon their release, we must do more to rehabilitate, and then reintegrate, if they are to avoid a return to crime”

Actually it’s way past time to get serious;  we have for years been going backwards in Corrections policy and practice.  There has been an enormous social and human cost from the ‘tough on crime’ agenda that has obsessed successive governments for too long, as they accepted a wholly unfounded assumption that most New Zealanders want a punitive approach taken to crime rather than one that focused on real solutions and improving public safety.

The Corrections Minister went on to say “We know that two thirds of prisoners have addiction problems, and that up to 90 per cent can’t read or write well.  By seriously addressing these major contributors to crime, alongside increased employment opportunities, we can reduce the likelihood of reoffending.”

She might well have included other factors that research shows have landed too many people in prison over recent years – like mental illness, like a history of abuse, like suffering a head injury, like being hearing impaired

All of these are highly characteristic of our prison population, and it is only by addressing these and other causative factors that we can hope to dramatically reduce our prison population and break the downward spiral of offending and reoffending.

While I’m genuinely pleased to see the Minister indicate a change in direction, it is clear from an analysis of the numbers in this budget (among other things) that her colleagues are not yet persuaded to make the real structural changes that will deliver better social and economic outcomes.

A decade ago Vote Corrections sat at about $450 million, while this year we see an appropriation in excess of $1.1 billion dollars.

A 250% increase over a decade is wholly unsustainable, particularly when most of it has been so poorly applied or targeted that it has produced very little positive good and has done a great deal of measurable economic and social harm.

The challenge is to put in place a programme of ‘justice reinvestment’, to move away from spending on keeping more people in prison for longer, move away from throwing scarce money into concrete, steel and wire, and to spend instead on treating causes.

If we go down this path of investing, rather than wasting money and human potential, we will I am sure see a ‘multiplier effect’.  For years a vocal minority, aided by an often uncritical and compliant media, has fed the ‘tough on crime’ policy, while a large number of community organisations and individuals have quietly got on with the business of lending practical support and assistance to a whole host of rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.  Properly resourced, the volunteer and community sector could assist the government to gain a very high rate of return on every dollar invested. We don’t need to spend more money, we just have to spend more wisely, and over time the social and economic costs will come down.

The widely trumpeted $65 million ‘reprioritisation’, on average $16.25 million each year for four years, is a very small drop in a very large bucket.  While it will be a welcome addition to the sector if it is directed to real solutions, the total amount budgeted for rehabilitation and reintegration has in fact decreased from last year’s actual spend – only by a few tens of thousands, but a decrease nonetheless, and this is indicative of the Minister and this government having a long way to go if they are serious about delivering solutions rather than just perpetuating problems.

Published in Justice & Democracy | Society & Culture by David Clendon on Wed, May 30th, 2012   

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