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A recent article in The Spinoff has put the spotlight on a couple of initiatives that Corrections Minister, Kelvin Davis, is spearheading to reduce the rampant growth in New Zealand’s prison population.

The reason for all of this movement in the corrections camp is that the Government has set itself the rather ambitious target of reducing the prison population by 30% within 15 years.

One of these initiatives, a new bail support service, is targeting the remand population which currently sits at around 29% of the total prison population and is projected to rise to 38% by 2027 if left unchecked[1]. The logic behind this new service is that many of the people currently sitting on remand could be eligible for e-bail but aren’t applying because they lack the necessary support or skills to do so. The simple act of sending in a bail officer to help them lodge an application is getting them ‘out’ on bail and hence reducing the remand population.

The other initiative is targeting throughput by getting prisoners ‘parole ready’ earlier in their sentence. Most prisoners are eligible for a parole hearing after they have served a third of their sentence but today many aren’t being released. Why? Because to be successful at their parole hearing they need to have completed a sentence plan, and that plan will include a number of rehabilitation programmes. Unfortunately, that’s where they hit a major bottleneck; there just aren’t enough spaces to get onto these programmes, let alone early in their sentence. Again, the Minister is wading in to ensure that Corrections is making more of an effort to place prisoners into programmes before their first parole hearing.

While still early days, these two initiatives seem to be getting the government closer to their goal with a ministerial briefing paper suggesting that the “prison population peaked in March at 10,820 and on 3 October had dropped to 10,035 – a 7.3% fall.”

The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is whether these initiatives will get us any closer to dealing with the root cause – intergenerational disadvantage – or are we just playing a numbers game?

Let’s look at the remand population for a moment. The proportion of people on remand who go on to be convicted is 76%1. While not all of those convicted will receive a prison sentence, isn’t the Minister’s efforts to get these people out of remand and back into the community like an unguided missile somewhat flawed?

More often than not the bail address that they are released to lands them straight back into the environment that created their alleged offending in the first place. Without any positive intervention or disruption to their lifestyle, the odds of them continuing to do what they’ve always done seem very high.

“Being on bail is no deterrent to offending. I’ve been on bail multiple times, for different offences. The last time I was on a 24-hour curfew and wasn’t allowed to leave my house, but that didn’t stop me. I continued to use and sell drugs from my house. I do wonder if I had gone to prison earlier, then that might have been enough for me to stop and get out of the drug scene. Instead I wasted my whole 20s to the drugs.

There needs to be something else in place to help rehabilitate and reintegrate if they really want to end reoffending.” Ex-offender

So, what’s the alternative? If we don’t want them circulating in the prison system where they can hone their criminogenic behaviours with ‘the experts’, then we could look to set up series of out-of-gate providers that any person eligible for bail could be released to. In that way, it would at least create a barrier to any further offending by removing them from their network of anti-social associates.

However, perhaps a much simpler solution is that we start some form of rehabilitation process while they are on remand rather than leave them untouched, in a holding pen, for on average 71.5 days or evict them on bail? The downside is that it doesn’t help the minister’s goal of reducing the prison population. The upside, of course, is that irrespective of whether or not the individual receives a prison sentence, a behavioural change process can begin, and with it the possibility of a change in direction.

Surely long-term solutions that go the distance are better than a short-term fix that will appear great from a numbers game but will only amplify the population in the long run? Our money is on more investment and sooner. In other words, rehabilitation for the remand population AND early stage rehabilitation for the convicted population.

The programmes that NZ Corrections currently run are high quality. The issue is that not enough of them are being run, not all courses are available in all prison locations and, too many prisoners aren’t being exposed to them. Why? Their sentences may be too short (once they finally move out of remand) and/or the nature of their crime excludes them from receiving treatment. A different but related issue is that anyone serving a lengthy prison sentence is not being exposed to these rehabilitation programmes until much later in their sentence.

By making these behavioural programmes available to ALL detainees, i.e. irrespective of whether they are on remand or convicted and irrespective of the length or nature of their crime, we will achieve two things. Firstly, we will begin to change the ‘university of crime’ culture that exists within our prisons today and secondly, we will create the space and opportunity for behavioural change to kick in. If we can further support these behavioural change programmes with lifestyle and vocational learning frameworks then suddenly we have the makings of a truly restorative rather than retributive prison system.

If New Zealand is to have any real hope of addressing our amplifying crime rates and burgeoning prison population, then we need to focus more resources on prevention and restoration rather than the retributive stance that successive governments have sewn into policy and law. It’s time for a rethink. Detention disrupts a life of crime, let’s ensure that we use that time to break intergenerational cycles, regenerate and create real pathways of success rather than just put criminal behaviours on ice!