Andrew Little is proposing a radical change of approach to the Criminal Justice system.
Minister of Justice Andrew Little has laid out a vision for criminal justice reform which sees sentencing law relaxed and a rejection of “tough on crime”-style politics.
His comments during an interview with the NZ Herald have been likened by one leading academic as the boldest political move in criminal justice since former Minister of Justice Ralph Hanan, who saw the death penalty abolished in 1961.
Little said “so-called law-and-order” policies have been a 30-year failure and locking up more people with longer sentences hasn’t made New Zealand safer.
“New Zealand needs to completely change the way criminal justice works,” he said. “It is a big challenge we are facing. It’s not an issue that’s been a short time in the making.
He said the rapid rise in prison numbers “follows 30 years of public policy-making, public discourse, that says we need tougher sentences, need more sentencing, need people serving longer sentences and I think, frankly, criminalising more behaviour.
“One of the major challenges is to turn around public attitudes – to say that what we have been doing for the last 30 years in criminal justice reform actually isn’t working. Our violent criminal offending is going up.”
Little wants a”national conversation” to air new ideas and is planning to hold a criminal justice summit which would seek out a range of views and inform the public.
While the failings of the current system is something that has been known for some time, it is rarely acknowledged at a political level but is an important first step towards fixing the problem.
The Criminal Bar Association has welcomed Little’s comments. From a press release:
The Criminal Bar Association of New Zealand strongly supports the Minister of Justice Andrew Little’s willingness to consider that “Law and Order” policies have not achieved the objectives sought.
The CBA President Len Andersen has said “Minister Little has recognised the rapid rise in prison numbers reflects a failure of punitive penal policy over the last 30 years. The unnecessary mass incarceration of New Zealanders should be a concern to all New Zealanders.”
Those who work in the criminal law know first-hand some of the disastrous consequences of the high levels of incarceration in NZ. Our crime rates are broadly similar to other countries, yet our imprisonment rate is much higher than other OECD nations (we incarcerate 220 prisoners per 100,000). It costs $900 million a year to imprison 10,000 inmates at $90,000 a year and any reduction in this spending frees money for more productive uses.
The CBA also commended Minister Little’s frank acknowledgement that the disproportionate numbers of Maori in prison – more than 50% of the population – revealed systemic problems.
Cabinet is shortly to decide on whether or not to build a new 3,000 bed “mega prison” at Waikeria. The decision about the mega prison will be an acid test for the new Government. Does it invest huge resources into a facility that is an acknowledgement of failure or does it try something different?
Again from David Fisher in the Herald:
It’s being called Labour’s first great test as Government – signing off on a $1 billion mega prison that will allow our overflowing prison population to expand even further.
The problem is the nation’s finest academic minds on criminal justice issues are warning it will have impacts that directly contradict all the promises made by Corrections minister Kelvin Davis when he was in Opposition.
In an open letter, 32 leading academics have urged the Government to reject the mega prison.
They warn the prison ignores international best practice, will lead to increased criminal offending, will be inhumane and “will undermine Prime Minister (Jacinda) Ardern’s Waitangi Day commitments and intensify the mass imprisonment of Māori”.
It comes as the Labour-NZ First government approaches a critical deadline with a paper coming to Cabinet early next month – and possibly next week – to seek approval for a massive expansion programme for Waikeria Prison in Waikato.
A decision to go ahead and expand the prison to hold up to 3000 inmates is expected to put our nation’s penal policy on a track at odds with Labour’s election promises.
But in making the decision, Cabinet will have to balance changes hoped to reduce prison numbers and the expected political damage around inmates who would otherwise be locked up carrying out high-profile crimes.
New Zealand’s incarceration rate, particularly of Maori is a travesty. Even Bill English realises this, at least the fiscal implications of the swelling prison muster. In 2016 he was reported as saying that the increase in prisoner numbers posed as big a risk to the economy as the possibility of a change in world interest rates.
But the possibility of a mature public discussion on the need for change appear to be slim.
Simon O’Connor has released this press release concerning the current prisoner population and is suggesting that proposals for change are “ideological” and are putting the public at risk. He said this:
The Government continues to have its head in the sand over the rising prison population and its refusal to admit a new prison is urgently needed is putting public safety at risk, National’s Corrections spokesperson Simon O’Connor says.
“With only 300 prison beds left and the Government no closer to making a decision on whether to continue the previous Government’s plan to build a new prison at Waikeria, New Zealanders have a right to be concerned for their safety.
“There is no denying the prison population is rising fast and these criminals have to be put somewhere. The Police Commissioner today revealed that capacity is so tight that remanded and sentenced criminals are having to be held in police cells.
“But Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis continues to put his own ideology ahead of public safety. He appears to be ignoring his own officials’ forecasts which show the urgent need for a new prison.
We could have a mature political discussion about how the current prison system is not working. Or National can use the issue to rark up public unease. Three guesses what is going to happen.