The Government has postponed a $1 billion decision to build a big new prison at Waikeria. Instead, it will put 600 prisoners in ‘rapid build modular units’. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

One of the Government’s biggest and most difficult decisions has again been delayed.

The construction of a new mega prison at Waikeria was not confirmed in this year’s Budget.

Instead, an extra $200 million will be made available for temporary units to house New Zealand’s skyrocketing prison population.

The “rapid-build modular units” will be stuffed with 600 prisoners and will be built by the end of next year. They are in addition to several other extra units already under construction.

“There has been an enormous growth in our prison population, far beyond what was projected even two or three years ago. The modular units are required right now,” Finance Minister Grant Robertson said.

As the number of people locked up has risen, so has the operating cost, and $316 million over four years will be made available to deal with the expenses.

Building the new $1 billion Waikeria prison is something the Government does not want to do and it has been desperately trying to find alternatives.

It is understood that a decision on whether to build it has already been made, but while the funding created in last year’s Budget remains available, its exclusion from this year’s books raises questions about whether it will go ahead.

The current prison on the site is well below standard and in desperate need for an upgrade. At the very least money will be have to be spent bringing it up to modern standards.

If the expansion is scrapped, some huge changes to the justice system will have to be made.

Loosening bail and parole rules would make the biggest immediate difference, but is political poison.

A move to more community sentences?

More minor initiatives announced in this Budget point to more community-based sentences being handed down.

A lack of housing available to recently-released prisoners has been identified as an issue, with $57.6 million over four years to provide homes and support services for more than 300 people. This will be delivered through a partnership by Corrections and Housing New Zealand.

Probation and community services get $82.7 million, which will be used in part to pay for 270 more probation officers by 2022.

There is also $8.6 million to bring the total number of people being electronically monitored to 1000.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said to reach the Government’s goal of reducing the prison population by 30 percent in the next 15 years there needed to be safe and effective alternatives.

“The people who need to be in prison will be in prison. But we will also make sure support is in place to help prevent re-offending, and that offenders who meet the criteria for staying in the community are able to do so safely.”

In the wider justice portfolio money has been provided to meet the extra costs of raising the Youth Court age to 17.

The Ministry of Justice will receive $52 million over four years to raise wages and pump into ICT costs, while $88 million over four years will be provided to the court system to meet demand for services such as expert reports and lab tests.

Victim Support was a winner with an extra $13.5 million over four years and Community Law Centres and the Independent Police Conduct Authority also received funding boosts.

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