Why don’t we spend $1b to keep people out of jail, rather than spending it on keeping them in?

Earlier this week, Corrections Minister Judith Collins announced the government’s ‘solution’ to our burgeoning prison population. It seems that most, if not all, of Bill English’s hard-won surplus is going to disappear into another round of prison-building.  That must be a bit hard to swallow for the man who, five years ago, called prisons a ‘moral and fiscal failure’ and expressed the hope that Wiri Corrections Facility would be the last new prison built for a long time.

Our increase in prison numbers – ‘average’ numbers of incarcerated offenders have more than doubled over the last twenty years – is not because New Zealanders are becoming more lawless or because the crime rate is increasing (they aren’t, and it isn’t).  The massive and apparently inexorable increase in our prison population represents a long term failure of public policy, a perverse determination to throw more money into reactive mechanisms that have failed and continue to fail rather than investing in removing the causes of the problem.

Correction’s own figures reveal the level of dysfunction in government policy and spending priorities. In the next year, 19,000 people will spend time in prison.  About 55% of those will have been receiving a welfare benefit. 36% will have a mental health condition. 47% will have some form of drug or alcohol dependency.  Almost 65% of them will not have achieved NCEA level 1 in literacy or numeracy. According to Corrections, “this is why we’re transforming prisons into places of industry, treatment and learning.”

Such a transformation might be a wonderful aspiration, but here’s the thing – why is the government not helping that transformation by spending on the causes of offending, rather than planning another billion dollar spend on more prison cells?

The state of our mental health services is scandalous and prisons are becoming a dumping ground for people who should be given treatment, not punishment.  Just about every drug or alcohol treatment centre in the country has a waiting list.  Anyone wanting treatment in Auckland for methamphetamine addiction might be looking at a 3-4 month waiting list, an eternity for someone hooked on that particularly nasty substance. Our schools are being told to do more with less, which means more kids are slipping through the cracks and ‘failing’ (or rather, being failed).

The government’s response to some of this is to use ‘windfall’ money to try and stop some of the gaps. The extra money will no doubt be welcomed, but no agency is going to invest in building and expanding long term capacity on the basis of a one-off injection of cash that probably won’t be available next year.

Here’s an idea – why don’t we spend that $1 billion in ways that will keep people out of jail, rather than spending it on keeping them in?