Sensationalised mass media, the rise of populist pressure groups and distrust of expert input has led to New Zealand's Third World levels of imprisonment, a leading academic says.
In a paper titled A Punitive Society, Victoria University criminology Professor John Pratt has attacked New Zealand's continually rising imprisonment rate and what he terms "penal populism" around crime.
In New Zealand, there are 194 prisoners for every 100,000 people.
This is higher than anywhere in Western Europe and sits between African countries Gabon and Namibia on a global league table.
The crime rate has been falling for years and yet the prison population and corrections spending has ballooned to $1.2 billion this year, Professor Pratt said.
"Logically, there should have been less public fear of crime, less political preoccupation with crime and fewer concerns about prison measures being too lenient,"
However, constant media sensationalisation of crimes had helped to create a climate of fear and anger, he said.
He claimed the media had little interest in balanced reporting of crime and punishment.
"A sensational story will head off competitors, attract the public and thereby generate more advertising revenue."
It portrayed one-off extreme crimes as normal, whereas they are almost all unique and unlikely to occur again, he said.
New Zealanders had a deeply ingrained distrust of intellectuals, and so did not respect expert opinion on law and order.
Instead, he argued, they turned to groups like the Sensible Sentencing Trust and ignored evidence prisons had become places that made bad people worse.
The Sensible Sentencing Trust's influence on justice policy was now so pronounced it had almost become the new establishment, arguing crime was increasing and punishment getting more liberal, while voices from within the criminal justice system had become marginalised, he claimed.
The lesson for politicians was to be careful what they set in motion by giving in to ill-informed populism, he said.
Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar said Professor Pratt was typical of the liberal academic establishment.
"They try to discredit anyone who speaks up, who opposes their point of view.
"The last 30 years has seen New Zealand adopt a lot of these so- called experts' policies and it removes a lot of the accountability, consequences and boundaries that a well-performing society has."
The trust was not concerned about spending on prisons, he said.
"We deal with the victims of crime. The cost of imprisonment is irrelevant to us."
He said the level of influence Professor Pratt accorded the trust was flattering.
"The fact SST has seen some significant changes, I would have thought, would be a shot over the bows of these liberal academics . . .
"We haven't got the letters behind our names. We are just ordinary people standing up for what we believe."
- The Dominion Post