Four editorials on Corrections

This is getting to be a habit. Two days in a row, and all four major dailies again have editorials on much the same subject.

This time we will start in the South with the ODT:

There was some evidence taxpayers had been saved money by private enterprise: one study showed the cost of keeping an inmate in a high security prison run by the Department at the time was $72,000 per year; the cost in a minimum security prison was $54,000, and the cost in the privately-run remand prison $43,000 a year.

The Treasury also told the Labour government that the Corrections Department was unlikely to run the remand prison for a cheaper price. Nevertheless, it was taken over by the department. At the time, the co-leader of the Maori Party, Tariana Turia, commented the prison had operated “extremely well” under private management.

Today, we have record prison inmate numbers, about half of whom claim to be Maori, and an exceptionally high recidivism rate. The state system is clearly far from properly addressing their rehabilitation. It is this failure that needs to be the focus of the Government’s attention, rather than whether private enterprise can do a better (read cheaper) job.

The is wrong to interpret better as meaning cheaper only. The private managed prison has lower levels of drug abuse and violence – both major factors into recidivism I would say.

Yet, what do we find in the most recent review of the department, by commissioner Ian Rennie: the Labour government failed to provide anywhere near enough funding to pay for required extra parole officers; it refused to pay for the much-needed 10 additional psychologists; it refused the department’s request for more funding to meet just “satisfactory” standards of service.

I think the ODT overlooks the Auditor-General saying very very clearly that any lack of resource can not explain the massive breaches of their own procedures and policies, that resulted in incraesed risk to the public.

Next The Press:

The minister had no doubt expected that this latest report would lead to the sacking of Corrections’ chief executive, Barry Matthews, by Rennie, who is technically his employer. Matthews had refused to resign.

But to Collins’ chagrin, the report said that sacking Matthews could not be justified. Rennie acknowledged that non-compliance with parole management procedures was too high, but said there had been recent improvements.

His report also pointed to the increased workload of the department and said that requests from Matthews for more staff had been rejected by the previous government.

This finding might create the suspicion that the head of the public service bent over backwards to clear the chief executive, and Collins is certainly correct to say that most New Zealanders do not have confidence in the department or Matthews. But, realistically, Collins had no real choice but to grit her teeth, accept the findings of a report which she had ordered, and promise to put more resources into Matthews’ department.

The alternative would be for her to tell Rennie that she could not possibly work with her chief executive, which would virtually force the commissioner to replace him. Yet after being cleared by the latest report, Matthews would almost certainly have sought a substantial payout, especially as he had two years of his $375,000 a year contract to run. That would have been politically unacceptable.

Yep. In one sense Barry Matthews has been put onto probation rather than given a recall!

The Dom Post:

Strip away the verbiage and State Services Commissioner ’s report on Corrections Department accountability can be read two ways.

Either it is an elaborate exercise in buck-passing chief executive Barry Matthews cannot be held accountable for his department’s failings because the last government woefully under-resourced it or it is a charter for mediocrity: departments should not be expected to follow their own procedures.

To be fair to the last Government, I understand funding for Corrections has been:

99/00: $427m
08/09: $965m

Departments always say they want more money. Corrections has had its budget double and they still couldn’t follow their own procedures in the *majority* of their own cases.

Protecting the public is the department’s No1 priority. The Burton case should have have served as a wake-up call to all within Corrections. Mr Matthews has devoted extra attention to high-risk parolees since the Burton case, but it is surprising that he appeared to be unaware of the extent of his department’s failings till the auditor-general conducted his review.

It is almost as surprising that Mr Rennie does not consider that a sackable offence. The department’s failure to follow its own rules put public safety at risk.

In standing by his beleaguered chief executive, Mr Rennie has made himself accountable for the department’s performance. If the department continues to fall short of public expectations, he will find that an uncomfortable position.

That is very true.

And finally the Herald:

The Corrections Minister’s instructions to the State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie, were quite explicit. He was to “establish who is accountable for serious failings identified by the Auditor-General’s report into the management of offenders on parole”. By any yardstick, Mr Rennie has failed miserably. He has found no one accountable in terms worthy of justifying dismissal. That includes the chief executive of the Corrections Department, Barry Matthews, and the parole head, Katrina Casey. And there is not a murmur about who else, among the problem-plagued department’s staff, should be held accountable for these “serious failings”. The Government’s quest for public-sector accountability seems to have passed Mr Rennie by.

To be fair to Mr Rennie, he is hamstrung with our employment laws that basically do not allow you to sack people just because they have failed at their job.

His report is the more abject in that he confirms the department has been failing to make the grade. Corrections’ internal standard is 85 per cent compliance with its own parole management procedures. Last December, it managed 80 per cent. Further, Mr Rennie judged that the department could have moved earlier last year to manage the potential risk to public safety caused by far more offenders being placed on community-based sentences.

But he excuses these grave shortcomings by pointing to improvements in performance. Compliance with parole management procedures had dipped as low as 60 per cent in November, 2007, he notes. What he does not mention is that this was almost three years after Mr Matthews took the Corrections reins. It was also about the time community-based sentences came into force, a move that necessitated the training of new probation officers. This innovation may, as Mr Rennie suggests, be a mitigating factor. But it is not an excuse. It should not distract from the long-term problems under Mr Matthews’ watch.

As I said previously, the improvements in performance had better continue.

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