Monday, March 06, 2006

Editorial: Rethink on failed jail policy vital

Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor caused quite a stir last month when he declared his intention to cut jail numbers by a third. Some doubted the public would tolerate such a step. Yet the Herald's week-long series on "Our Idle Jails" has surely confirmed the need for a substantial rethink of how we punish criminals, and how we stop reoffending.

The reports illustrated graphically how present policies have proved counterproductive. Since 2002, the number of men and women behind bars has increased by 33 per cent. Tough laws abolishing suspended sentences, which were enacted that year, have propelled our imprisonment rate to the second highest in the developed world. As fast as the Government has been building prisons, the courts have been filling them.

But the main outcome of this influx has been the falling by the wayside of work and rehabilitation programmes devoted to education, training, and drug and alcohol addiction. Life in the country's 19 overcrowded prisons has become, in the apt phrasing of an Ombudsman's report, one of "enforced idleness".

It is, thus, hardly surprising 86 per cent of released prisoners reoffend within five years. Or that there is universal acceptance of the need for more rehabilitation programmes. Imprisonment keeps criminals out of the public domain but without rehabilitation it merely delays reoffending. Prison becomes as much a catalyst for crime as a deterrent.

But rehabilitation programmes will struggle for effectiveness as long as our prisons remain overcrowded. There can be little hope of success when inmates are being shunted around the country in search of available cell space. Mr O'Connor's solution is to adopt community-based alternatives for low-level offending - the likes of drink-driving and theft - albeit not soft options.

His initiative has garnered wide support, but not from the National Party. It is clinging to a philosophy espoused by Don Brash in 2004. That policy, centred on the denial of parole to most inmates, has much in common with American-style "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approaches.

Since 2002, however, we have gone a fair way down that track. It has not worked. Imprisonment has not proved a panacea for violent crime; over the past four years, there has been only a 1 per cent drop in such offences. New Zealand has confirmed that sentencing policies and crime rates operate largely independent of each other. Even the Sensible Sentencing Trust now concedes the shortcomings of present policy. Its founder, Garth McVicar, like Mr O'Connor, found much to admire in Finland's approach during a conference there last month. Both men were doubtless also chastened by the way New Zealand was held up as a model of what not to do.

The Finnish model is based on separating hard-core recidivists, who remain imprisoned, from those who pose no threat to society and would benefit more from properly enforced community work. Offenders must give up their preferred employment for what would formerly have been their period of imprisonment. It may be that some of the work, such as the fruit-picking now being done by prisoners in Hawkes Bay, is not particularly rehabilitative. But even that is better than staring at the ceiling of a cell. And it entails far less cost to the taxpayer.

More fundamentally, a 2001 Corrections Department report emphasised the importance of early intervention, so that the goal of at-risk youth switched from offending to achieving. In the climate of that time, it gained little traction. Now, however, both it and the Finnish model warrant close scrutiny. Persevering with a failed policy makes no sense.

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