Transforming to a prison-free society

John Buttle

In 2011 New Zealand had the seventh highest incarceration rate out of 34 countries outstripping those in the European jurisdictions and Australia, making far-fetched the claims that New Zealand’s criminal justice system is soft on crime. New Zealand currently incarcerates around 10,200 people with the cost of keeping each individual prisoner approximately $97,090 annually, culminating in eye-watering yearly spends of around $165m for remand facilities on top of the $590m spent on sentenced prisoners. This does not include the money spent building more prisons. The number of peoples of colour incarcerated is 62.2% – 50.8% of the prison population is Māori and 11.4% Pacific people – indicating a strong racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Successive governments seem to enthusiastically support the notion that prisons work. Proponents of incarceration often cite the following reasons for imprisonment: it reduces crime (deterrence); it ensures the safety of the public (containment); and it reforms criminals so that they become useful members of society (rehabilitation). But prisons do not work and this has been established by academics as far back as the 1970’s.

There is no relationship between levels of crime and numbers people incarcerated. Despite the crime rate in New Zealand steadily dropping since the mid-1990s, the rate of incarceration has been increasing because we have adopted a more punitive approach to sentencing. In 2006 the crime rates in Canada and the United States had both been falling for 20 years but the United States had an incarceration rate of 715 per 100,000, while Canada incarcerated at a much lower 111 per 100,000. Prison does offer limited public protection while people are behind walls but prisons are such desolate and aversive places that those incarcerated are traumatised, making prisoners’ behaviour more problematic. This is one of the reasons why New Zealand’s prison system has been an abject failure in its attempts to rehabilitate, leading to high rates of re-offending. Between 2006 and 2015 the re-offending rates ranged from 55.4% to 62.2%, meaning that the risk is greater than chance that once a person has been incarcerated they will re-offend.

In short, our prison system is not solving the problem of crime but making it worse.

Prisons do not work, have never worked, and never will work. They do not deter, they do not rehabilitate, and while they contain for a period of time, when that containment has finished the released prisoner emerges a more damaged person, more liable to re-offend.

Given this, prison abolition is the only sane policy response – because it is the only thing that has not been tried. There are misconceptions about prison abolition. First, that it will be achieved with a snap of the fingers and the walls will come down freeing everyone. This is not the case. Prison abolition should be seen as a gradual and transformative process where over time moves are made to change our prisons so they no longer resemble what we currently understand as a prison.

The starting point of the abolitionist project should ensure that people do not go to prison unnecessarily. The majority of those imprisoned are not dangerous. In 2016 only 17.3% of those incarcerated were maximum security prisoners, while the rest were categorised as minimum (at 28.3%), low (at 23.4%), and low medium (at 29%). This means that 80% of inmates are not considered to be particularly dangerous by Corrections and could be better suited to appropriate community responses.

For decarceration to become a reality a strong focus needs to be placed on the repealing or amending laws that have enabled the prison population to explode. For example, the Bail Amendment Act of 2013 put the onus on the defendant to prove they are fit to be granted bail instead of on the prosecutor, and removed the presumption of bail for 17 to 20 year olds who have served a previous sentence. This drastically increased the number of people on remand. While it is often the case that ‘three strikes’ laws have less of an impact on prison numbers than anticipated, the potential for it to fill New Zealand’s prisons by imposing needlessly harsh sentences remains a concern that should be addressed. The rules around probation need to be relaxed as well.

During 2013, three quarters of prisoners were serving sentences of two years or less. It can be assumed that if a person has been sentenced for less than two years it is unlikely they are incarcerated on a serious matter, raising the question as to whether these people should be in prison in the first place, or would be better suited serving the community. Desistance studies indicate that prisoners are less likely to reoffend after the age of 30-35. In 2016, 42% of those incarcerated were aged between 35 years to 84 years, so there would be value in ensuring that inmates in this age range were considered for release. Another way of reducing prison numbers is to decriminalise victimless crimes that are not injurious to others. Such offences include the majority of traffic infringements, possession and sale of illegal drugs, public intoxication, some forms of disorderly conduct, vagrancy, and the like. If this is achieved with adequate care it will aid in decarcerating our prison system.

With over half of prison inmates being Māori it is important to consider the racial bias of the gate-keepers to criminal justice system: the police. Even if culturally-appropriate community measures are put into place, they will have little effect if the police keep disproportionately scooping up Māori into the criminal justice system. Contact between police and Māori youth is nearly three times higher than with non-Māori; Māori are more likely to be arrested for cannabis use than non-Māori. Between 2010 and 2013 tasers where deployed against Māori and Pacifica peoples on 102 occasions per 10,000 as compared to the rate of 38 occasions per 10,000 for Pākehā. True prison reform also means making it difficult for the police to racially profile and over-police neighbourhoods with high concentrations of Māori or Pasifika residents.

We are currently propping up a racially biased wastepaper basket where the poor and marginalised are consigned to harrowing prison existences, which also punishes the families of those incarcerated. If we carry on putting people in prison then we will only worsen the situation by increasing the danger to society when we should be focused on alleviating harm. The best way to achieve this it to not put people in prison. To start a programme of decarceration that removes the majority of people from the prison system, and  as prisons are closed down, the financial savings can be put aside for the development of more humane and effective ways of helping those few dangerous citizens.



Categories: #election2017, Crime, Justice, Law
John Buttle
About the author

John Buttle

John Buttle holds a Ph.D in Criminology and Criminal Justice and is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at AUT. He has written on issues to with the police and the criminal justice system in New Zealand and other countries.