Guest Post: New Zealand has 10,000 prisoners – all have earned their place there

A guest post by of the :

Considerable angst has been expressed by some, mostly progressive organisations and political parties, at New Zealand’s prison population exceeding 10,000 earlier in the year – as though 10,000 were some special number that shall not be exceeded. It is a nice round number, but the symbolism is lost on us as we’re pretty sure New Zealand judges are not imprisoning people lightly.

It will not surprise anyone that the Sensible Sentencing Trust stands for the rights of victims, and justice being served for the harm they have suffered. Often, but not always, that means prison is the just outcome for the offending, and we support its generous use for serious and repeat offenders. For low level and first-time offenders, generally not so much.

We have always been confident New Zealand was not imprisoning low level and first time offenders – the many cases we deal with that should have resulted in imprisonment but, outrageously, did not, confirms that on a daily basis. But we thought it would be instructive to find out for sure.

We filed an OIA to Corrections asking, amongst other things, how many persons were imprisoned or on remand by lead offence – such as ‘aggravated robbery’ or ‘murder’. Those familiar with the sentencing process will know it is the ‘lead offence’ which largely determines the length of sentence imposed. The data was supplied by Corrections in a raw format so we had to do some compilation, sorting and analysis. The results are astounding, not only confirming what we already suspected, but
are in fact more damning than even we could have imagined.

On average, the persons imprisoned or held on remand in New Zealand have 46 prior convictions on their record. And that excludes any they have in the Youth Court.

Think about that for a minute. Forty-six occasions where the prisoner offended, a complaint was made to police, evidence was collected, the offender was caught or identified, the decision to prosecute was made, the offender was convicted and finally the offender was sentenced – mostly not to imprisonment. Think about all the offences not convicted, where evidence was not sufficient to prosecute, where the victim chose not to lay a complaint, where police chose not to prosecute.
Those 10,000 prisoners are, by and large, 10,000 individual crime waves. No wonder the injustice system never publishes an offender’s criminal history. The excuse given is ‘privacy’. The real reason is embarrassment – to the system.

We accept that a proportion of those convictions will be for lower-level matters such as driving, breaches of court orders and perhaps drug offending, but nonetheless those 10,000 men and (increasingly) women together share about 460,000 convictions between them, and who knows how large a trail of destruction and victims in their wake. New Zealand judges are not known for their
tough on crime attitude – as much as we’d wish they were. So do those 10,000 men and women, that some in our society seem so intent on making excuses for, deserve to be in prison? The answer is obvious. In many cases they should have been imprisoned for earlier offences.

Which brings us to another question. When Labour Deputy Leader, Kelvin Davis, says he wants to reduce the prison population by 30% as he did in April this year, just who does he want to let out of prison?

The murderers, who serve less than 12 years on average of the ‘Life’ sentence?

The burglars and home invaders, who are rarely caught and serve a fraction of the 10 year maximum for their repeated predatory invasion of people’s homes?

The aggravated robbers gutlessly targeting shopkeepers and others trying to make an honest living?

Because once those serious offenders, and others such as sexual and violent offenders are accounted for, they make up fully 71% of the prison and remand population. That leaves 29% committing other offences – 1% less than Kelvin Davis wants to let out. So what kind of offenders make up the 29% who some might argue are not so serious and should be let out?

Around 12% are imprisoned on drugs and drug-related convictions – almost exclusively manufacturing, dealing and importing. Perhaps a dozen or so people are imprisoned for ‘possession’ of drugs. So the quantities must have been huge. We don’t imprison people for smoking cannabis in New Zealand – despite what Jacinda Ardern might think – as she indicated in the Three Leaders Debate last Monday.

Another 5% are imprisoned on driving offences – mainly drink driving (for the umpteenth time) or driving while disqualified (again, for the umpteenth time). Not the crime of the century, but seriously risking the lives of other road users and pedestrians, and no doubt these individuals have finally run out of excuses in the Judge’s eyes, or the Judge has finally run out of patience.

The 12% balance of the prison population is ‘rats and mice’ in statistical terms –3% and 1% here and there for various offences such as fraud, weapons, breaches, arson, neglect or ill-treatment of a person, contempt and handling the proceeds of crime. There are just no big numbers to work with, and we suspect that those imprisoned on such matters will have some very serious priors which
contributed to the Judge choosing imprisonment on this occasion. The Sentencing Act actually requires a Judge impose the ‘least restrictive’ sentence, so the prior offending must be damning in those cases.

We would be much more supportive if Mr Davis said he wanted to reduce by 30% the serious and violent offending along with sexual offending, burglaries and the shameful level of family violence in New Zealand. That would be a laudable goal. But he doesn’t say he specifically wants to reduce offending – just the number of people imprisoned. And that is a critical distinction. It means fewer people imprisoned for the same level of offending. He could choose, like Sensible Sentencing Trust does, to seek reduced offending, fewer victims and improved justice for victims.

Why would Mr Davis, and presumably the Labour Party generally, seek not reduced offending, but reduced imprisonment? We appreciate that prison is expensive, and a great deal of taxpayer funding goes into building and running our prisons. But it is money well spent, and justice doesn’t come cheap.

Questions have been raised recently about whether there is a hole in Labour’s budget plans. We don’t know – we ‘re not accountants. But could letting 30% of prisoners out early be one of the ways Labour intends to save money to fund future increases to other services? We don’t know -Labour’s website is silent on their plans for Corrections. Why is that? It’s a major item of expenditure and public concern. If Labour is to lead our next Government, the public of New Zealand have a right to transparency on their plans to reduce the prison population. Because every
one of the 10,000 currently imprisoned has thoroughly earned the judge’s decision to protect us from them.

Garth McVicar
Founder, Sensible Sentencing Trust

It will be interesting to know who are the 3,000 prisoners that Labour thinks should be let out of jail, despite an average of 46 prior convictions. I guess we’ll find out if they’re in Government!

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