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May 8, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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New Zealand’s rising prison population directly linked to flawed legislation

Criminal justice experts are calling on politicians to practically address the escalating prison population.

In 2013, the National Party reformed bail conditions, backed by parties across the political spectrum. Today, New Zealand has more people in prison than at any other time in history, reaching a record 10,000 in late 2016.

The number of prisoners held on remand has doubled since 2014. Criminal justice organisation JustSpeak launched a report last Friday, linking the overcrowding of New Zealand’s prisons to a misguided implementation of the Bail Amendment Act 2013.

The Act was designed to be specific in scope: to make it more difficult for defendants convicted of serious crimes to be granted bail. This was in direct response to what Andrew Little called, at the time of the bill’s third reading, a “growing community concern” that offenders were committing violent crime while on bail.

At the time of the Act, the Ministry of Justice projected that the reform would lead to a modest increase of 40–50 prison beds. This was able to be effectively incorporated into Corrections’ budget, according to the Regulatory Impact Statement.

In their report, JustSpeak estimates there to have been an increase of approximately 1500 prison beds — 30 times the amount originally predicted.

The rapid increase of prisoners on remand has placed significant strain on prison infrastructure. Kelvin Davis, Labour Party spokesperson for Corrections, told Salient, “the more we fill up prisons, the more prisons we have to make.”

The drastic overshot cannot be explained by Corrections holding more violent offenders on remand. According to JustSpeak spokesperson Jordan Anderson, “a large number of that 1500 are not serious offenders.” The proportion of people in prison for a violent or sexual offence decreased by 5% in 2016.

Instead, a large number of low-level defendants, including those not yet convicted of a crime, are captured by the ambit of the Act. JustSpeak claims that a main reason for this is due to strict housing requirements alienating the majority of offenders: “tents, caravans, camping grounds, or hostels are not considered suitable.”  

Davis told Salient that these issues (among others) are evidence of “bureaucratic stupidity keeping people in prisons when they shouldn’t be.” It is the direct result of Corrections being “untruthful in locking up people” by missing “simple solutions.”

In that respect, Davis and Anderson are in agreement over what needs to change — policy. Anderson said that “looking at changing the implementation of the Act is a realistic way of mitigating its terrible effect.” Simply repealing the Act without addressing this implementation could lead to another “downward spiral into punitiveness” which preceded the 2013 reform.

VUW Criminology lecturer, Liam Martin, attributes the record high prison population to this punitive public position, in that “it is a product of specific choices about how [New Zealanders] respond to crime.” Similarly, Anderson points to an increasingly “risk averse system” which is rooted in punitiveness.

This punitiveness has been particularly punishing for Māori. Around the same time that JustSpeak released their report on bail conditions, the Waitangi Tribunal held that the Crown had breached their treaty obligations of active participation due to the increasing levels of Māori reoffending.

Anderson was keen to point out that changing New Zealand’s bail laws would directly provide positive outcomes for Māori offenders. “It would be the ideal absolutely […] that the results of this report would motivate [politicians] to actually do something about our prison population which is spiralling out of control, and about the hyper-incarceration of Māori which is shameful… in terms of our responsibility to our people.”

When Salient questioned the risk of “easy fixes” in addressing systemic problems, such as Māori imprisonment, Anderson acknowledged the narrow focus of the report. Martin explained that repealing the Act is a “great first step.”

“A long term strategy […] will call on New Zealanders to confront deeply entrenched problems that many would rather ignore: problems of institutional racism, homelessness, a lack of living wage jobs and so on.”

“But the immediate need is to prevent further increases… and to ease pressure on a chronically overcrowded system.”

Davis described the first step as cross-party collaboration to address prison numbers and alternative options, such as a “prison based on Kaupapa Māori, rather than ‘Kaupapa Corrections’.” This would see values such as whānaungatanga prioritised in existing prisons, rather than an alternative justice system for Māori.

For Anderson, the results of the Waitangi Tribunal claim against Corrections have shed light on possible issues to this approach. She was particularly hesitant given the “bastardisation of tikanga by the Department of Corrections and how fundamentally offensive that is to anyone that has genuine belief in Kaupapa Māori principles.”

“Given the depth of the entrenchment of colonisation… I don’t know whether [prisons] can be redeemed in their current form.”

Salient asked Minister of Corrections, Louise Upston, what steps National plans to take to address the large scale incarceration of Māori. Upston pointed to a number of “initiatives already in place for Māori prisoners… any suggestions that may help reduce the prison population and reoffending rates are welcome.”

Upston declined to comment on whether National would commit to a cross-party discussion on the matter.

Although Upston also declined to comment on the findings of the JustSpeak report, Anderson told Salient that she was surprised at the depth of cross-party support JustSpeak had received. However, the political will for actual reform was still “another kettle of fish.”

Although Davis is firm on the need for change, telling Salient I’d rather spend $100,000 keeping someone out of prison than keeping someone in it,” it’s clear that other politicians may not agree. Labour MP for Napier, Stuart Nash, called for tougher, longer sentencing on his public Facebook page.

Salient asked Upston how National would address the specific findings of the report. In response, Upston said “Corrections staff work incredibly hard with [prisoners],” and pointed to a new commitment by National to reduce the number of “victims of serious crime” by 10,000 in the next four years. It is unclear how these policies will specifically address numbers of low-level defendants being held on remand.

The political and public will remains unclear — Martin told Salient that many New Zealanders, much like Prime Minister Bill English, view prisons as a moral and fiscal failure: “[they] are crying out for solutions.”

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