NZ's 'prison problem' needs changing

Last updated 05:00 24/06/2014

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New Zealand has a "prison problem" and needs to start looking at alternatives to address its high incarceration rates, a prison reform organisation says.

In a report released today, youth advocacy group JustSpeak says New Zealand has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the developed world, locking up 188 people out of every 100,000.

And the cost of keeping a person in prison costs New Zealanders approximately $97,090 a year, it says.

The 158-page report, Unlocking Prisons, aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of New Zealand’s prison system and offers recommendations for reforming it.

"We’re wanting to challenge some of the key assumptions that are out there, in particular the idea that being tough on criminals automatically means sending someone to prison and that’s an effective way to reduce crime," JustSpeak spokeswoman Lydia Nobbs said.

"We’ve looked at what prisons are trying to achieve and we’ve concluded that we don’t think they are achieving those aims."

According to the report, prison had little effect on deterring a person from further offending, or could even increase the likelihood they would re-offend.

In New Zealand, the re-imprisonment rate was 28 per cent for men and 18.4 per cent for women, while the re-conviction rate was around 45 per cent.

Other sentencing options, such as home or community detention, had been shown to reduce certain types of re-offending, while being significantly cheaper, the report said.

However, these alternatives were not being used as widely as intended.

Among its recommendations, JustSpeak said judges needed to tailor the purposes of imprisonment to each offender, rather than simply assuming that prison would achieve the purposes of deterrence or protecting society.

It also said the threshold for considering sentences of home detention should be increased to three years. 

While some might consider home detention an "easy option", there were several benefits to its use, the report said.

The Ministry of Justice had found home detention to be "a very successful sentence in terms of reducing the likelihood of re-conviction and imprisonment", with the proportion of offenders re-convicted in the 12 months after home detention less than half of those offenders released from a short-term prison sentence.

According to the report, the cost of sending a person to prison was approximately four times as expensive as managing that offender on home detention.

Other recommendations by JustSpeak included repealing the "three strikes" law, and establishing a sentencing council.

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Nobbs said despite the list of recommendations, the main aim of the report was to initiate a conversation around New Zealand’s criminal justice system.

"There aren’t any easy, quick-fix, simple measures. But prison is a distraction from the real solutions."


- Stuff

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