The problem with prisons

by David Lomas / 30 July, 2011
Our “lock ’em up” approach to criminal offending is creating more problems than it solves, according to the author of a new book on New Zealand’s justice system.
Photo Paul Estcourt/NZ Herald


In Auckland District Court on a Friday morning, judges in some of the 16 courtrooms are handing down custodial penalties that will cost New Zealand taxpayers about $1.1 million. Seven men are sentenced to a total of 12 years’ imprisonment. Their crimes: recidivist drink-driving, recidivist burglary and assault.

The offending by four of the men, according to submissions by counsel, is directly related to drug and alcohol problems. The chance that either drugs or alcohol were also involved in the offending of the other three men is high, although their lawyers made no reference to this in court.

The Corrections Department says about 83% of prisoners have drug and alcohol problems and that many crimes are committed under the influence of drugs “to raise money to support a habit or addiction … Therefore we can make a significant contribution to reducing reoffending by addressing offenders’ drug and alcohol misuse.”

But not one of the seven men sentenced on this typical court day is likely to receive any drug or alcohol counselling or rehabilitation during their time in prison. Their chances of relapse are, therefore, high. They are likely to reoffend and serve yet another prison term, during which, once again, they will probably not get any treatment.

Wellington drug and alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking says the problem is “the justice system has become a vicious cycle from which it is extraordinarily difficult for any offender to break free” – a catch-22 situation whereby failing to put offenders into treatment courses for drug and alcohol addiction actually contributes to criminal reoffending and to a recidivism rate that sees about a quarter of prison inmates back inside within a year and over half back, often more than once, within five years.

“The biggest obstacle in the system,” says Brooking, “is that although 80% of offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs, only about 5% of all offenders are required by judges to attend a substance-abuse programme as part of their sentence.”

Brooking has spent the past 10 years writing drug and alcohol assessments of prisoners for judges and the Parole Board. He has become so frustrated at what he sees as the failings of the New Zealand justice system that he has written a book detailing the faults.

The book’s title, Flying Blind, picks up on something Parole Board chairman Judge David Carruthers said last year: that the lack of alcohol and drug assessment of prisoners means “the Parole Board is flying blind with respect to inmates’ alcohol and drug needs on release”.

Brooking believes the failure of both the court system and the prisons to address the alcohol and drug problems of offenders is one of the biggest contributors to New Zealand’s high rate of recidivism.

He uses drink drivers to highlight the lack of emphasis being given to the problem. Of the 30,000 convicted of drink-driving offences each year, judges direct just 5% to have an alcohol assessment. Brooking has interviewed people with repeat drink-driving offences who have never been ordered to attend an assessment – some of them have offended as many as 10 times, some have served two or three prison terms.

“I find that bizarre,” he says. It indicates the courts and the Corrections Department are not bothering to find out “what is behind all these people getting convicted for drink driving and in particular repeat drink driving”.
Brooking says although many different factors lead to antisocial thinking and delinquent behaviour and then ultimately to crime, “it seems that drug and alcohol abuse is the easiest factor in the equation to identify and treat”.

And he has a surprising ally in Corrections Minister Judith Collins who, on TV3’s The Nation last month, joined Finance Minister Bill English in describing prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure”.

English had said: “Prisons are a fiscal and moral failure. And building more of them on a large scale is something I don’t think any New Zealander wants to see. They want a safer community and they want protection from the worst elements of criminal behaviour, but they don’t want to be a prison colony … It’s the fastest rising cost in government in the last decade and my view is we shouldn’t build any more of them.”

Drug and alcohol units are responsible for about a 30% reduction in recidivism for those who complete the programme, says Collins, and are therefore “very ­fiscally sound”. The recent opening of a unit at Auckland’s Paremoremo prison, the first one in the northern part of New Zealand, is long overdue, she says, and it is “shocking that it was not done before”.

Despite her claim that reducing re­offending is a key Government priority, the amount the Corrections Department spends on drug and alcohol rehabilitation is just $3.4 million of its $1.1 billion budget. Brooking says money is rarely spent on prisoners who serve less than two years, meaning only about 5% of the 20,000 people in prison each year are able to get help.

Corrections Department chief executive Ray Smith, who is six months into a five-year term, is looking to reshuffle the department’s budget to put more emphasis on rehabilitation. National is in the pro­cess of doubling the number of prisoners who can get treatment for substance abuse and Smith says he wants to double this again.

But Brooking says increasing the avail­ability of treatment in prison is “like pouring money down the toilet” when there is a systemic shortage of substance-abuse treatment facilities in the community. He says this is why judges find it so hard to get drink drivers and other offenders into rehabilitation in the first place – which sometimes leaves prison as the only option.

Corrections Minister Collins, like English and other finance ministers around the world, is looking for new approaches to reduce the escalating costs of imprisonment. English has gone as far as to raise concern that Corrections is on the way to becoming the largest ­government department.

The wave of penal populism that swept the English-speaking world in the 1980s, spurred on here by Garth McVicar’s Sensible Sentencing Trust, is now proving a “financial black hole” in the wake of the global economic crisis. It saw the incarceration rate in New Zealand rise from 119 for every 100,000 people in 1992 to 203 now. The average number of prisoners is now 8700, costing about $92,000 a year for each inmate – a total of more than $800 million. By 2017, Corrections predicts, the average prison muster will rise a further 18%.

Although Collins expresses an interest in greater rehabilitation, she is also still strong on penal punishment, saying tough sentences are a deterrent to criminals and do “keep the public safe”.

But Brooking and leading New Zealand experts on penal policy dispute that. Brooking has studied research papers on penal punishment from around the world. He quotes a paper from the office of the Canadian solicitor general that looked at 50 studies involving 300,000 offenders of the deterrent effect of imprisonment. The report found imprisonment did not reduce recidivism and that longer sentences were actually associated with a 3% rise in recidivism.

Even the Corrections Department has reservations about whether longer sentences reduce reoffending, Brooking found. He quotes Arul Nadesu, the department’s principal strategic adviser, who wrote in 2009 that “analysis confirms simply that the more time in the past someone has been in prison, the more likely they are to return to prison”.

Brooking says the public belief that there is a growing crime problem in New Zealand is largely the result of statements by McVicar and the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Studies in 2003 and 2009 found an overwhelming belief by New Zealanders that crime had worsened in the past 20 years. Only 57% of New Zealanders, in a United Nations study, report feeling safe. This puts New Zealand on a similar rating as Lebanon, Bulgaria, Iran and Albania.

Victoria University criminologist Professor John Pratt is a world-renowned expert on penal policy and is quoted extensively by Brooking. Pratt says the public and the Government are still trapped in the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s penal-populism rhetoric that the crime rate is escalating and tougher sentences are needed as a deterrent.

Nothing could be further from the truth, says Pratt. “Crime in this country has stabilised since 1995-96. There is absolutely no growth in crime in New Zealand. Law and order is simply not the issue in this society. But [the Sensible Sentencing Trust] captured the attention of the media and quite skilfully manipulated them, and the politicians fell into step with that.”

Pratt says the comments by English and Collins on prison spending in New Zealand are welcome “because there are so many better things to do with public expenditure. Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on hospitals or schools.” But rehabilitation courses are not the simple answer.

“There are so many problems with the prison system that even the good that is being done by Corrections is being undone by its system – the overcrowding, the double bunking, the lengthy lock-downs of 16-plus hours a day and the shunting of prisoners from prison to prison. Rehabilitation cannot flourish where conditions are cramped and crowded.”

Pratt has studied the Scandinavian penal system extensively, including in Finland, where the incarceration rate is 40 for every 100,000 people (compared with New Zealand’s 203).

The Finns achieved the low rate by agreeing not to politicise or sensationalise crime and by basing policy on academic research and “expert understanding”.

But, Brooking says, New Zealand politicians show scant interest in what Pratt and other penal-policy experts have to say and instead listen to McVicar, who is “a farmer with no qualifications in law, psychology, criminology or anything remotely related to penal policy”.

Such is the relationship between politicians and the Sensible Sentencing Trust that when the trust held its annual meeting in 2010, Prime Minister John Key, Justice Minister Simon Power and Corrections Minister Judith Collins all attended and gave speeches. The three ministers were also invited to the Prison Fellowship conference a month later, says Brooking, but despite public statements by Key and Collins “that rehabilitation is a key Government priority, not one of them bothered to attend”.

Roger Brooking


He says if experts such as Pratt were listened to instead of McVicar, New Zealand could make vast changes to penal policy, and prisons such as Wellington’s Mt Crawford, which even Collins calls “an absolute disgrace”, could be closed. Instead, the Government has built a new prison in Mt Eden and is planning another in Auckland, this time in Wiri, with 960 beds and costing $424 million.

Brooking says changes he would like to see would include the establishment of drug courts and a massive increase in funding for addiction treatment in the community. He would also like to see a network of supervised halfway houses and aftercare for inmates leaving prison. Research on community care of prisoners suggests it is three times more effective in stopping recidivism and six times more cost-efficient.

The Government is facing the biggest deficit in its history and Brooking believes the economic crisis has given New Zealand a unique opportunity to reflect on its expensive and ineffective penal policy.

In the UK and US, individual politicians have stepped up. In December British Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced new proposals to “break the cycle” of crime, tackle the causes of reoffending and stop the rise in prisoner numbers. Plans for a new privately run 1500-bed prison were shelved and at least three, possibly six, prisons will be closed.

“Dangerous and serious offenders” will still be jailed, Clarke said, but a range of new community-based rehabilitation options will be introduced to cut the number of low-level offenders being imprisoned. The plan includes more help for offenders with drug and alcohol problems.

In the US, Virginia Senator Jim Webb is arguing for a national reform of the prison system: “We are wasting billions and diminishing millions of lives.”

Webb’s stand prompted a US News & World Report editorial that said: “I cannot imagine the issue of prison reform will win him many votes [but] Webb should be congratulated. For those of us in Washington who sometimes forget what it looks like, this is called leadership.”

Brooking hopes English’s comment that prisons are a moral and fiscal failure “is the start of turning the tide here”.

When times are tight, he says, we cannot afford to continue throwing resources into the financial and humanitarian black hole caused by locking up more and more New Zealanders. It’s time to start a national debate and generate some intelligent ­discussion on the issue.

Flying Blind by Roger Brooking is available at www.flyingblind.co.nz.

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