Time spent on remand continues to increase with Corrections confirming someone has been kept in prison for five years – and their case still isn’t sorted. 

A backlog in the courts system due to Covid-19 as well as more complex cases coming to trial and general resourcing pressure has seen Corrections break its own record for the longest time a prisoner has been kept on remand. 

As at the end of July, 32 people had been held on remand for more than two years, five people more than three years and as of Thursday one person had been held for 1867 days or just over five years.  

Corrections confirmed the man was in Christchurch Men’s Prison, adding since they were first placed on remand they had been before a judge.  

“Since this person was first placed on remand, they have been before the court where they were sentenced and received time served for a number of their earlier charges. However, they continue to be held on remand due to ongoing active charges which remain before the courts.” 

In the Chief Justice’s annual report, remand delays were highlighted as a growing problem.  

“Despite the remand population falling, the time people are spending on remand has been increasing. Delays for remand prisoners are problematic for a number of reasons. First, research shows that spending even a short period on remand has significant impacts on a defendant’s life outside of prison – such as the loss of employment and housing.  

“Some remand prisoners will not be convicted once they come to trial. Innocent people are therefore spending time in prison. Others will be convicted but will receive non-custodial sentences, or sentences that are shorter than their time spent on remand.” 

Statistics for 2021 show an overall increase in serious offending go before the courts, with a 16 percent jump in the number of jury trials. 

As at December 2021, the average wait time for a criminal trial to be heard in the High Court was 487 days. 

And while recent crime statistics show the total number of adults charged with crimes has dropped, and the total prison population is lower, the proportion of people held on remand has remained stubborn. 

As of June this year there were 3058 prisoners in facilities on remand – 40 percent of the total prison population. 

Projections from the Ministry of Justice released earlier this year show the remand population will continue to become a larger chunk of the prison population.

“The sentenced population is projected to decrease from 4900 in November 2021 to 4000 in 2031. The remand population is projected to increase from 2900 in November 2021 to just over 4000 by June 2031.

“By 2031, it is projected that the average time people will spend on remand is 91 days compared to 76 days in November 2021,” the report predicts.  

The projections are improved from those in 2020 which forecast remand time of more than 100 days.  

“It’s just so sad that we still continue to let bureaucracy get in the way of us actually doing what we’re supposed to do for the betterment of our community.” – Aphiphany Forward-Taua, JustSpeak

Similar projections from the ministry in 2019 pinpointed December 2018 as the turning point for longer times spent on remand and this was because cases were taking longer to get through the courts.

“This is being driven by: later guilty pleas in the criminal court process requiring more court hearings; a lack of sufficient court resource to deal with these additional court hearings, along with the reallocation of judges from the criminal to the family jurisdiction; an increase in the number of days to the next available court hearing due to workload pressures; and an increase in category three cases, which are more serious and generally require more court hearings.” 

The longer time spent on remand could also be skewing the sentenced prisoner statistics, which have been trending downwards.  

This is because time spent in prison on remand is deducted from a sentence. Many prisoners will have completed their time – and sometimes more – by the time they actually get sentenced. 

Howard League for Penal Reform spokesperson Cosmo Jeffery said time spent on remand was wasted. 

“It’s very hard to get on any programmes because they’ve not been found guilty of anything… [on remand] they don’t have anything to do they just sit around being bored and talk about crime and it’s just so stupid.” 

The league has been calling for remand housing facilities to keep people away from jail unless they’ve been convicted, amongst a raft of other changes. 

“We want to see, first of all, much more community monitoring done so the people wear bracelets, and they’re not in jail, and they can carry on with their lives.  

“But basically, what we want is a remand centre set up, which will be catering for exactly the situation where people haven’t been sentenced, but they can do things like numeracy, or they can work on some of their drug and alcohol issues maybe – and they won’t be wasting their time.” 

Since 2018 there have been initiatives put in place to slow the increase in remand time.  

This includes the High Impact Innovation Programme’s Bail Support Services. It was initially trialled in a few large courts between 2018 and 2020 and the national rollout began in mid-2020  

“These initiatives have and will continue to slow the growth in the average time on remand relative to what it would have otherwise been. While not included in these projections, further operational initiatives currently underway have the potential to reduce remand time such as the cross-sector Criminal Process Improvement Programme (CPIP). However, the average remand time is still projected to increase in the long-term in line with the historic trend. 

“Upward pressures remain with the increase in more complex cases entering court, more people electing jury trials [and] more people pleading guilty later in the court process,” the 2022 Justice projections report noted.  

CPIP received $11.1 million across the Justice Sector over four years in Budget 2022.

“The Government has responded to the pressures the courts have been under, as a result of Covid-19, by funding just over $76 million from recent Budgets.” – Aupito William Sio, Minister for Courts

JustSpeak executive director Aphiphany Forward-Taua said despite efforts to improve the system, it was an inherent flaw that people were kept in jail who had not been proven guilty. 

“We need to draw a line in the sand and say anything low-level to moderate-level offending, we need to be trying to ensure that people aren’t being held on remand. And if people are being held on remand, they should be given the same access to services as sentenced prisoners. There should be no difference.” 

She said a lack of suitable housing was a massive problem in keeping people off remand and, as well as inherent delays in the court system, needed to be addressed. 

“We should have better relationships with community organisations that work with people on the ground to ensure that people are housed… especially for low-level offending, I do not think we should be putting people in prisons.” 

Remand frustrations are not new. 

In 2020 Newsroom reported on the agonisingly slow rate for which some people on remand moved through the system. 

Forward-Taua said it was devastating to continue to hear from people who felt trapped by the system. 

“It’s so sad that we continue to let people down. I get messages all the time from people saying I’ve got my family member held in prison and they’re just so mentally unwell, you know, on the verge of suicide … it’s just so sad that we still continue to let the bureaucracy get in the way of us actually doing what we’re supposed to do for the betterment of our community.” 

Minister for Courts Aupito William Sio said all parties across the judiciary were working to improve delays.

“Ultimately, the judiciary are responsible for determining how to prioritise judicial resources. The Government has responded to the pressures the courts have been under, as a result of Covid-19, by funding just over $76 million from recent budgets to provide additional judicial resources.”

He said recent initiatives to address the pressures, including CPIP, were working. 

“The objective of CPIP is to reduce pressure on the criminal jurisdiction of the District Court through better use of court time and resources so that cases can be resolved earlier, with fewer court hearings, and reduce the number of days the accused spends in custody waiting for an outcome. Over time, this will reduce the amount of time defendants spend on remand.

“An early-stage evaluation has shown CPIP workstreams are delivering positive changes. This includes a reduced number of court events to plea and an increased number of same-day and same-week sentencings.”

Other work includes setting up a national scheduling team to ensure that all available resources are maximised within the District Court and using community magistrates, registrars, and Justices of the Peace more often.

He said there were 1646 fewer active criminal cases in the District Court now compared to just before Covid restrictions began in March 2020.

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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