A good prison system should have three functions. It should keep the public safe from dangerous criminals, punish those who have seriously or repeatedly broken the law and rehabilitate offenders.
OPINION: By and large, New Zealand's penal system does the first two reasonably well. When it comes to the third, it has been an abject failure.
Every year, around 20,000 New Zealanders are sentenced to jail. At any one time, 8500 are behind bars. It is one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the Western world.
But while the prison system is good at keeping inmates locked up – escapes are rare – it is not so good at preparing them to reintegrate back into society once they are released. The recidivism rate among former inmates is alarmingly high. Nearly 40 per cent of those freed from jail each year are back inside within 24 months of their release.
The social and financial cost of that reoffending rate is enormous. For every released prisoner who commits further crimes, there are more victims, more children left without the presence of a jailed father or mother and more costs heaped on to taxpayers.
That is why the Government's to investigate the merits of "working prisons" should have the support of every party in Parliament.
Under the scheme, every inmate at Tongariro and Auckland Women's prisons will be engaged in some type of work or rehabilitation activity for 40 hours a week. The scheme is already running at Christchurch's Rolleston Prison, which has a contract with Housing New Zealand to refurbish earthquake-damaged properties.
Provided the expansion is carefully planned to ensure jobs are not taken away from workers in the community, it could have a significant effect. According to the Government's figures, reoffending rates for inmates on Release to Work programmes are 16 per cent lower than for those who are not, and prisoners who undertake work in jails per cent lower.
The reason is obvious. Society cannot lock people behind bars with nothing to do day after day, sometimes for many years, then expect them to come out as model citizens. Helping inmates to learn the skills and develop the work ethic they will need to stay on the straight and narrow is not only sensible, but essential.
The inability of former prisoners to find jobs is a major risk factor in their likelihood of reoffending. An idle ex-con is far more likely to fall back in with his or her criminal associates and return to a life of crime than one who is getting up each morning and going to work, earning a steady income and building a stake in society.
According to figures prepared for former Labour MP Rick Barker by the Parliamentary Library in 2010, halving the reimprisonment rate would see the jail population reduce by about 420 a year. At a cost of more than $90,000 a year to keep someone in jail, that would mean a saving of close to $40 million a year.
That alone is good reason for the Government to have made reducing reoffending rates one of its key priorities this year.