ANALYSIS: Eight months on from New Zealand First scuppering Andrew Little’s three strikes overturn, the Justice Select Committee has failed to reach consensus on proposed Corrections legislation.
Labour and National are at odds over controversial changes to the laws governing prison operations.
A proposed law that could see police cells fall under the jurisdiction of Corrections and legally ingrain the right to double-bunk prisoners has finished the select committee process without consensus.
The Justice Select Committee’s report, released earlier this week, said the votes were tied between Labour and National, and it was unable to reach agreement on whether to recommend the bill be passed.
The bill was originally proposed by Louise Upston under the former National government, but was then taken over by current Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis.
No support from National
National corrections spokesman David Bennett said the Government’s decision to remove the rehabilitation provision meant the party would not support the bill, and not vote for it when it got to the House.
The bill initially put forward by National included the legal requirement for every prisoner to have a personalised rehabilitation plan.
Bennett said that was removed by Labour and never discussed during the select committee process.
“The whole point of prison is to make sure the person comes out and doesn’t reoffend.”
The report includes a note from the committee’s National Party MPs Maggie Barry, Chris Bishop, Mark Mitchell, and Nick Smith and David Bennett, who tag-teamed on the consideration of this bill.
“The New Zealand National Party is disappointed that some initiatives that were originally proposed to be in this bill have been removed,” it said.
“First, the original intent of discussions undertaken in the previous government on this bill had a strong emphasis on rehabilitation. Although the bill proposes management plans for prisoners sentenced to over two years’ imprisonment, we would have sought specific mention of rehabilitation plans for these prisoners, as originally intended.
“At this time, when it is generally agreed that there is a need of rehabilitation for prisoners, it is very disappointing such plans are not incorporated into the bill. National members see this as a missed opportunity.”
Greens will support double-bunking plan
Other controversial sections of the bill include a clear provision for housing prisoners in shared cells.
The amendment said double-bunking would be allowed following a suitability assessment. The current assessments are carried out through the Shared Accommodation Cell Risk Assessment (SACRA) tool.
The bill would also require shared cells to have ventilation and heating appropriate for the number of occupants, alarm buttons, and privacy screening of the toilet and shower.
The population peaked at 10,820 in March 2018. This saw a rise in the number of people sharing cells.
In January, it had dropped to 9916. With this came a 3 percent decrease in double-bunking from the start of 2018.
Labour and the Greens have been strong critics of double-bunking in the past.
When Davis took over as Corrections Minister and the population was at an all-time high, he said cell-sharing was a necessary part of operations to be able to house prisoners.
Since the population has dropped he has again voiced his opposition to double-bunking.
In January, Davis told Newsroom he planned to phase out double-bunking by safely reducing the population.
“I always prefer not to have any double-bunking at all.”
For now, it was a tool needed to deal with the prisoner population, and new modular pop-up units coming online were also equipped with cell-sharing capacity.
A spokesman for the minister said he would not comment on the bill at this stage in the process.
Meanwhile, the Greens also plan to support the Government bill “as a step in the right direction”.
Green Party corrections spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said the double-bunking provisions put in place some minimum standards.
“Whilst these new safeguards are an improvement, it’s unfortunate that in the short-term, double bunking is necessary because successive governments have created an over-populated prison system,” she said.
Labour needs the support of the Greens to pass legislation at a time when the coalition has prioritised justice reform, and promised to reduce the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years.
It knows it’s unlikely to get National’s support on any major legislation around justice reform, as the party has made it clear it plans to continue to take a “tough on crime” stance.
National’s Bennett said including this provision in the amendments to the corrections legislation was at odds with what Labour and the Greens have said in the past.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’re either against it or for it.”
During the select committee process, the Human Rights Commission opposed the provision in the bill that explicitly allowed for double-bunking, saying international human rights research favoured single cells, rather than shared cells.
The commission said prisoners experienced greater negative effects when cell-sharing.
“We recognise special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, mean single-cell accommodation is not always available. This is also accepted in the Nelson Mandela Rules. However, this should be a temporary measure and not an ongoing standard. We do not agree with amending the law to remove the preference for individual cells.”
Police cells as prisons
Another sticking point in the bill was Labour’s decision to remove the provision for police cells to be temporarily declared part of an established prison, when population pressures meant there wasn’t enough space to house prisoners in official correctional facilities.
The Act currently provides for the short-term detention of prisoners in police jails when there was a shortage of accommodation at local prisons.
The provision in the bill that went to the select committee would extend that so the resources of the Department of Corrections, rather than the Police, would be used to manage the extra capacity in the police cells.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’re either against it or for it.”
Labour’s committee members – Raymon Huo (chair), Ginny Anderson, Greg O’Connor and Duncan Webb – said they receommended removing this provision as they understood there was now sufficient capacity to house all inmates within established prisons.
The Government is also currently in the process of bringing extra modular prison units online, and is in the early stages of building the new 600-bed unit at Waikeria.
National Party members of the committee consider, given New Zealand’s geography, the flexibility of using police cells for prisoners might be appropriate in specific circumstances, and that the ministerial approval provided an appropriate check.
Bennett said Corrections had the best understanding of procedures, and the skills to deal with prisoners in those environments.
This would have also stopped police from feeling like a “semi-corrections organisation”, when they did have to house prisoners.
It’s crunch time
The coalition Government has made justice reform and reducing the prison population priorities.
Davis has been successful in reducing what was a dangerously high prison population, through systems changes and fixing inefficiencies within bail processes, probation, and prisons.
However, the coalition is yet to pass any significant legislation aimed at reducing the prison population, or overhauling the criminal justice system.
Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata, the Safe and Effective Justice group, is currently completing hui with victims and advocates, following on from its flagship summit last year.
Following Winston Peters’ kaibosh of Justice Minister Andrew Little’s proposal to overturn the three strikes legislation, Labour will want to make sure it keeps the Green Party and New Zealand First onside if it wants to pass any legislation aimed at widespread reform.