Liam Martin: Lessons from youth justice for our prison policy

Prisons are expensive breeding grounds for criminality.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Prisons are expensive breeding grounds for criminality.

OPINION: This week the Government announced plans to spend a billion dollars on more prison beds. They say it's needed to cope with forecast rises in the prison muster – as if increases were a force of nature, like a storm or earthquake. As Finance Minister Bill English put it: "this is something that has to be done. We have to provide the capacity. We'd certainly prefer to be in a position where this wasn't happening …"

But there is nothing inevitable about building more prisons. We have already opened five in a decade and doubled the number of beds, and the system is filled to overflowing. 

It's time to start making different choices. Our history of youth justice is a reminder we have changed paths before: in less than a decade between 1988 and 1996, we cut the number of children in state institutions from 2000 to  fewer than 100. 

This remarkable reduction in youth detention was made possible by the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act in 1989. The law introduced a series of innovative measures to keep young people out of institutions, among them a unique New Zealand invention based on restorative justice principles: the family group conference. 

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Rather than sending a young person to court, you can now put the victim and offender in a room together with their whanau. They talk it out and the offender hears firsthand the harm they caused. The conference is mediated by a trained facilitator, who works with all parties to develop a mutually agreed upon plan. When a plan is agreed and completed, the case never goes to court. 

Conferences are no magic bullet. The evidence suggests some reduction in reoffending, but many victims choose not to participate, and of those who do, only about half say they are satisfied with the result. The process does not address larger issues of poverty and inequality at the heart of criminal offending. 

However, in one area success is clear: as part of a broad commitment to stop locking up young people, conferences provide an important diversion pathway, channelling youth away from custody and freeing tax dollars for more productive solutions. They embody the local ingenuity needed to develop new ways of dealing with crime.

The same issues that drove the closure of youth institutions exist in our adult prisons. They lock up Maori far more than other New Zealanders. Violence and abuse are rife. They are expensive breeding grounds for criminality. Yet just as we decided to dramatically reduce the number of young people in custody, we began a programme of prison expansion unparalleled in New Zealand history. 

In doing so, we mimicked the American model. Our politicians passed 'three strikes' laws that have been ruinous in the US, named with a baseball metaphor that doesn't even make sense here. 

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American prison policy should be a warning of what to avoid, not a model to mimic. The country keeps 2.2 million people behind bars, one in every 100 adults, but remains easily the most violent developed nation on Earth. A New York Times editorial summarised the catastrophic impact: "The research is in, and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough."

Instead of continuing down this path, New Zealand can start making different choices. When we committed to closing our youth institutions, we found home-grown solutions. We should learn from this history of local innovation.

Liam Martin is a lecturer in criminology at Victoria University.

 - The Dominion Post

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