New Zealand's prison population is now almost 11,000.

Former MP Peter Dunne unravels why our prison muster has grown almost three times faster than our population since 1990, despite a flat to falling crime rate. He fears coalition politics will prevent a solution.

For at least the last 30 years it has been virtually impossible to have a rational political debate about law and order. The reaction to the Government’s apparent decision not to proceed with the new mega-prison at Waikeria highlights this.

Whereas former Prime Minister Bill English once described prisons as “a fiscal and moral failure”, the National Party under successor Simon Bridges would have one believe that any decision not to go ahead with Waikeria places public safety seriously at risk. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but the Waikeria debacle (for that is what it is – another example of poor communication within this Government, with Ministers seemingly not talking to each other about announcing decisions) does provide an opportunity to look at what has been happening with prison policy over the last 20 years or so.

In 1990, New Zealand’s population was 3.33 million people. It is now almost 4.9 million, a rise of 46 percent. Our 1990 prison muster was 4800 – today it is 11,000 – a growth of 129 percent, nearly three times the growth in the population.

Yet this growth is not because more crime is being committed. 

Our overall crime rate has been declining steadily since the 1980s, and the murder rate has halved in that time. Nor are more people being convicted of crimes: sentences, custodial and non-custodial, have fallen by almost 20 percent since 1990.

So, we have significantly fewer crimes being committed, yet substantially more people in prison. What are the contributing factors? The numbers of remand prisoners are up by almost 400 percent since 1990, and while Maori have steadily averaged 45 percent of the prison population over the period, they are still sadly dramatically over-represented in the prison population, to the tune of about three times their presence in the total population. And while seven percent of those convicted of crime in 1990 were imprisoned, that figure has almost doubled to 13 percent today. All these numbers are drawn from the official statistics, which appear to be overlooked when matters relating to law and order and prisons are being discussed, for obvious political reasons.

That leaves us in the perverse situation of fewer crimes, including violent crimes, being committed; but more and more people ending up in prison. It is little wonder that the call to build more prisons is strong, but equally little wonder that it is fiscally and morally unsustainable. We have to do better.

The focus has to be singleminded – ensuring fewer people are sent to prison, and that our internationally very high imprisonment rate is steadily reduced. To address this, there are many things we should be doing. 

For example, why is it that with more resources available, and fewer cases coming before the Courts it is taking so much longer for remand prisoners to come to trial? They do not need or deserve to be in prison that long – before they have been even convicted of anything. Why are we not making greater use of bail and home detention for remand prisoners?

At the same time, we need to look afresh at the types of crime for which people are being imprisoned, and whether there are better alternatives. That will also involve looking at the sentencing options currently available to the Courts, and whether Judges should have more flexibility, as well as getting rid of frankly silly populist and unsuccessful measures like the “three strikes” law, put in place on a political whim. 

Undoubtedly Maori imprisonment rates pose the biggest challenge. The time has surely come to look more seriously at marae-based justice and sentencing for Maori offenders, even though our local version of segregationist politicians will quickly scream “separatism” to an audience sadly all too ready to listen.

Now, while it is comparatively easy to state what needs to be done, it will be considerably harder to make it happen. The public flashpoint on law and order issues is extremely sensitive, as evidenced by some of the over-the-top comments by those on the right of politics in the wake of the Waikeria debate. The inconvenience of the facts will continue to be ignored, because prejudice is so much more likely to gain a favourable public response.

All of which means that in the absence of clear and decisive political leadership – and there is presently none of that on offer – the fallacy of building more prisons to keep people safe, while crime continues to fall, will carry on.

The Government will win plaudits in some quarters for raising questions about the worth of the mega-prison at Waikeria, but it probably already has the support of those quarters anyway. The more important question is whether it has the moral fortitude to do anything serious about reducing our burgeoning prison population. History (and coalition politics) suggest not. 

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