The $1.1 billion spent on prison and custodial services this year is not contributing to reduced crime rates – yet people are more likely to be remanded in prison pending conviction or sentence.

ANALYSIS: New figures disclose an accelerating increase in the number of alleged offences for which people are being remanded in jail awaiting a hearing.

The annual Statistics NZ data, published yesterday, goes behind the prison muster reported quarterly by Corrections, which just reports the inmates behind bars at any one time – not the total over the year. At the end of March there were 3,213 prisoners on remand awaiting hearing, and another 5,442 sentenced inmates.

The number of offences for which prisoners were remanded increased from 16,347 in 2019 to 17,022 last year. Newsroom recently reported the cases of two people who had marked three years in prison – without being sentenced. And tragically, it’s still the case that 52.7% of the prison population is Māori.

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So Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis’ launch of a “for Māori, by Māori” approach to prisons, in the hopes of reducing reoffending and giving the next generation a better chance of life, is welcome. In spirit.

But its sincerity seems undermined by the fact the Government has talked for 3½ years about reforming criminal justice and prisons, yet has done little.

Former Justice Minister Andrew Little called a major justice symposium, set up Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora advisory group, showed a seeming determination to change a broken system – then moved sideways to reform the health sector.

We see 17 prisoners charged after protesting (or depending on your perspective, rioting) against poor conditions at Waikeria Prison, as we examined on The Detail podcast.

And now, while the numbers of sentenced prisoners are dropping gradually, that is matched by the increase in numbers of remand prisoners every year.

The Department of Corrections counts heads, while Statistics NZ counts offences – but if the number of prisoners remanded every year is tracking at the same rate as the increase in remanded offences, that indicates more New Zealanders will be remanded in prison each year pending sentence, than are there after being convicted and sentenced. 

That is a grim report card that only the most one-eyed law and order campaigner could take pride in.

All the evidence shows prison doesn’t work in reducing crime rates; if anything it worsens them. The Government has budgeted more than $1.14 billion for the provision of custodial services this year, including long-term service contracts and public-private partnerships.

The taxpayer is not getting value for money from that spending – and neither are those children whose upbringing and futures are irreparably harmed by a penal system that has taken away their grandparents and their parents and may one day lock them away too.

Yet another government is now standing back, failing to rebuild our penal system into a justice system that effectively serves the community.

Evidence shows prisons contribute to an intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration. Photo: Department of Corrections

* An earlier version of this story said 17,022 people were remanded on alleged offences. In fact, people were remanded for 17,022 alleged offences.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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