The high cost of bad policy

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.

15 Comments Posted

  1. National is talking rubbish when it pretends it wants to lower prisoner numbers. All its done is privatize our prison system so corporations get their hands on government funds.

    Those corporations then pay money to “tough on crime” lobby groups and politicians who push for punitive laws. people like the national party in other words ……

    Half of all serious violent crimes like murder and rape involve the recreational drug alcohol. The drug alcohol costs our country BILLIONS but the National party wont tax this drug industry what it should, or properly regulate it.

    Thats how serious they are about crime ……

  2. This debate on a private prison, is stuck in the same mentality of punitive action ONLY for many inmates who are in prison for drug ‘offences’ when most would be better off either in treatment or education programs. Locking them up often just makes them worse.. exposing them to further criminal activity & criminal networks.

    It 2012 not 1950 !! time to move forward.. Kia-ora

  3. Jackal – so you are proposing to not build Wiri?

    And keep 1000 Auckland prisoners at the far ends of the country, away from their families and support, many in prisons that are not up to earthquake standards?

  4. photonz1,

    Not all prisoners come from Auckland meaning having one big prison is going to split families even more. Having family access is shown to be highly important in rehabilitation.

    The prisons National has announced it’s closing hold 412 prisoners while Wiri is built to hold 1060. That means they’re building extra cells to hold 648 inmates that don’t currently exist.

    The other problem is it’s a private prison. The standard and outcomes of private prisons in New Zealand are far worse than state run prisons.

    I don’t think the crime rate falling worldwide is a bad thing… why do you?

  5. Jackal says “In fact they’re preparing for an increase in prison numbers by building a huge private prison at Wiri.”

    Total and utter nonsense – prison numbers are going down, the govt PUBLICALLY states they are preparing for lower numbers.

    The new prison is so
    1/ they can close old prisons that are well past their natural life (and where conditons are not good at all).
    2/ Auckland prisoners can be near their families rather than having to be farmed out to the far ends of the country.

    Jackals says “You might also be interested to know that the crime rate is falling all around the world, so it has nothing to do with Nact’s get tough on crime policies.”

    That shows your desperation for all news to be bad. You think there’s less robberies in NZ because some other country also has less robberies.

    You should try reading out loud what you write. Then you might realise how completely stupid it sounds.

  6. And the drug and alcohol rehabilitation courses are only available once a person is convicted, after it is too late to avoid the lifelong consequences of a conviction. Even if they acknowledge the need for treatment and want to undergo that treatment, they are left to fend for themselves until the justice system gets around to processing them, by which time they have probably resorted to more criminal behaviour – to the detriment of both themselves and society.


  7. @Trevor “What is bad about those points is that the government should have acted 4 years ago.”

    Or, even better, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or 11 years ago.

  8. “Bravo Dave !”
    When you hear that the majority of inmates have Alcohol & Drug addiction issues & that many are in prison as a result of breaking the ridiculous Mis-use of Drugs act. You really have to wonder what this Govts ‘Law & Order’ priorities are ? Surely the tax money would be better spent on EDUCATION, & HEALTH CARE (harm minimization) rather than arbitrarily just the current : arrest, charge & criminalise ‘offenders’ for cannabis possession etc.

    Still worse the blinkered view of Police & Correction heirachy appears to be “rehab. for convicted crims. IN PRISON ONLY !” as if thats the only effective treatment option !

    Fingers crossed that private prisons don’t catch on.. turning inmates into a tradable commodity. (to be ‘bought & sold’ for profit)


  9. Well said Mr Clendon. A preventative model is best and could save considerable funds as well as reduce the human misery associated with crime. People who promote tough on crime legislation would be surprised to learn of some of the prominent people who have successfully gone through rehabilitation and now contribute positively to society.

    Not all inmates suffer from neurosis Andrew Atkin, and as with most mental illnesses it’s an issue of management. The earlier somebody is diagnosed and treated the more likely they are to lead normal lives. There’s an opportunity early in life to address the conditions that cause neurosis. That is where the system is currently failing the most and where funding would be far more cost effective.

    photonz1, what is so bad about those things you list is that National is not doing enough. In fact they’re preparing for an increase in prison numbers by building a huge private prison at Wiri. You might also be interested to know that the crime rate is falling all around the world, so it has nothing to do with Nact’s get tough on crime policies.

    Nobody said there’s anything bad about more prisoners doing drug, alcohol and literacy courses, just that a reduction in funding is likely to mean this is just propaganda. That seems to be the only thing National is good at these days.

  10. What is bad about those points is that the government should have acted 4 years ago.


  11. Rehabilitation is limited – it’s always a function of neurosis management – not neurosis removal. It’s so important to get at the child abuse, as it is the true root of the problem.

  12. What’s so bad about a 500% increase in the number of prisoners doing drug, alcohol and literacy courses?

    What’s so bad about the crime rate coming down? (during a recession too).

    What’s so bad about predicted lower inmate numbers in future years?

  13. And to make matters worse, the government’s actions will increase school class sizes so pupils struggling with reading, writing or hearing difficulties are more likely to slip through the cracks and end up on the wrong end of the justice system.


  14. Nicely put! Some of those spending nuances are well noted – although it’s no shock National aren’t putting their money where their mouth is. Tolley really taints everything she touches, I’m constantly surprised at the senior posts she gets

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