'Responsible for Zero reoffending." In the 1990s, the Corrections Department distributed water bottles to all staff on which this "core value" along with other "aspirational" slogans were printed. A pencil holder was also given to staff and on it was a stated goal to reduce Maori offending by 5 per cent.
Such goals and targets when met are usually quietly sunk and forgotten about. "Zero reoffending" was really a bit stupid.
Though not directly related to reoffending but relevant to public safety, the numbers being managed by the local Community Probation Service are one gauge of criminal activity in South Canterbury.
These offenders are the "more serious" as they have not been dealt with by a lesser penalty such as a fine, and they include offenders who have committed serious offences and are serving home-detention sentences or are supervised after being freed from prison.
Corrections was therefore asked for probation figures in South Canterbury over the past few years. I thought that getting these statistics would be a simple exercise as they are available at a push of a button or two.
However, the Official Information Act applied to my request and I was told that I would get the information at least within 20 days. This is essentially a risk-adverse policy to protect the minister.
Information for South Canterbury finally arrived and, at first sight, it is extremely good news.
Figures for the Timaru Community Probation office were received for the years 2010 to the present. The numbers being supervised by our local Community Probation office have dropped from 649 in 2010-11 to 284 (a decrease of 365) as at February this year. Some might say that this decrease coincided with the departure of the previous manager (me) but I couldn't possible comment!
Most of the decrease has been caused by a drop in community work numbers from 414 to 143. However, there are fewer people also on parole and home detention and on all orders and sentences. There has been a decrease of 66 per cent for the most serious offenders, parolees and other post prison offenders have decreased markedly. For all in this category there were 85 in 2011 and 45 as at February 1 this year.
Numbers sentenced to jail from Timaru were requested but this of course has become an Official Information Act (OIA) request.
So great news for South Canterbury as the figures show that there are fewer serious offenders on the books of the local Probation office, fewer caught up in the maw of Corrections, less money being spent on them and, in theory, less serious offending.
A couple of factors have come together as reasons for this decrease.
One is the overall decrease in District Court business, which for Timaru has fallen from 1929 as at June 2011 to 1173 as at June 2013. So, in simple terms, fewer offenders in, fewer offenders out.
Precharge diversion is a police initiative which deals with offenders outside the court process. Offences subject to pre- charge diversion are many and various and may come as a bit of a surprise to some. They range from possession of cannabis to wilful damage, theft and assaults on police.
On April 3, 2012, this paper reported: "In Timaru the [police] station had diverted about 20 per cent of charges, through the warning system. Area commander Inspector Dave Gaskin said the warnings were a positive step. 'People are entitled to make mistakes, but we can take another approach rather than putting them before the justice system for a minor matter.' "
Behind all this is the fact that there are fewer people in the relevant offending age group - 15 to 24.
The think-tank Rethinking Crime and Punishment states: "In 1971, young people in the 15 to 24 age group made up 17.3 per cent of the general population. By 2006, the number had fallen to 14.4 per cent - a 20 per cent decrease.
"The number of 15- to 24-year- olds is expected to plateau by 2013, and then decline until 2023." This factor alone has allowed the offending numbers to drop without the Government doing anything.
So two reasons then: Less raw material and a considered decision by the police to process this raw material differently. There are also other factors such as a resident judge and Probation is probably pursuing other means for the offender to comply rather than quickly using the blunt method of prosecuting.
Statistics need to be analysed and interpreted and reoffending rates especially have to be carefully scrutinised. There is good reason to believe, however, that South Canterbury continues to be one of the safest places on the planet.
Kevin Foley is a former manager of the Timaru Community Probation Service.
- The Timaru Herald