Crime falls but prison figures remain high

In 2013, 42 people were sentenced to imprisonment in the Timaru District Court. There were 81 sentenced in 2012 and 64 in 2013. The numbers have halved in two years

A request for these figures was processed under the Official Information Act, so simple, neutral data took several weeks to arrive but arrive it did. It came with the qualification that some Timaru offenders may have been sentenced elsewhere and "outsiders" sentenced here but these factors are generally relevant to any year.

Good news then for South Canterbury as the figures show that the number of our really nasty offenders has decreased.

New Zealand rates well on the world stage when measured against a large number of important criteria. The OECD Social Justice rankings which measure poverty, access to health, and other indicators place New Zealand well above the average; we are three places above the UK and nine places above Australia.

In the Global Peace Index, New Zealand ranks third in the world (after Iceland and Denmark). An international index that ranked 123 countries showed that New Zealanders have the most freedom.

Our crime rate is ranked the 24th highest - well below that of the United States which was placed at fifth. It has been trending downwards over the last 20 years with a significant drop in the last three years.

This last year the number of recorded offences was at its lowest since 1989. Though politicians trumpet this, it is a phenomenon of most of the Western World and is caused by a number of factors such as a smaller relevant demographic, improved security and better and different policing.

But there is one dark New Zealand statistic which is rarely admitted - the prison population per 100,000. In the late 1980s the prison population in New Zealand began to grow very quickly, largely as a result of vote- gathering by politicians.

It went from 91 per 100,000 in 1987 to 200 per 100,000 in 2009. It has since reduced to 194 per 100,000, a reduction of 2.1 per cent over last year where it has stayed, despite the reduction in the crime rate. We have the second highest prison population of all the Western democracies.

We imprison Maori at a rate of 700 per 100,000, six times higher than non-Maori. For Maori males born in 1975, it is estimated that 22 per cent had a Corrections- managed sentence before their 20th birthday, and 44 per cent had a Corrections-managed sentence by the age of 35. An objective observer might call this racism.

Our level of imprisonment has remained stubbornly high despite the falling crime rates. In December 2009 our prison population was 8244 and in the intervening years (in February it was 8513), it has not dropped below 8000.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English referred to imprisonment as both a "fiscal and moral failure" - a comment which has gone nowhere and certainly his call has not been taken up by his colleagues or any politician. There are no votes in a call to lessen prison numbers.

While it is clear that a small number of people need to be locked up for a long time for their and the community's sake, there is no evidence that prisons are a general deterrence in reducing reoffending. Reoffending rates however indicate that prisons are a factor in producing criminality. The longer you stay in prison, the more likely you are to offend.

There are many reasons why our prison population has remained constant.

Longer sentences are being imposed and it is harder to get out through a risk-averse and conservative Parole Board. The Ministry of Justice forecasts that the prison muster will reach 10,385 by June 2015. This is a 27 per cent increase from June 30, 2007. This seems unlikely but there is safety in overestimations.

A rational society applying empirical methods would investigate the worth and cost of our level of imprisonment but crime too readily becomes an issue used by politicians to scare people. We may see more "get tough" rhetoric in the leadup as we lead-up to the election.

The cost of keeping one person in prison for 12 months is $90,000 and the total cost of keeping offenders in prison is $753 million (62.84 per cent of the Corrections budget).

As a contrast the Ministry of Justice website tells us that $6.37m, 2 per cent of its budget, was spent on support for victims. This may not be the full picture and comparisons are odious. The odium of this one is spectacular.

Footnote: Kevin Foley is a retired manager of the probation service in Timaru.

The Timaru Herald