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Marc My Words - Open Prisons? NO!

17 February 2005

Marc My Words - Open Prisons? NO!

Political comment By Marc Alexander

The Labour government has, for the last six years, tried to paint itself as tough on crime and, to be fair, there have been a few baby steps in that direction. Some tightening up on 'boy racers', higher penalties on pornography and pedophilia, and an expansion in the use of DNA. But such successes owe more to ex-Justice minister Phil Goff's personal determination than a real change of heart by Labour apparatchiks who - despite every shred of evidence to the contrary - still believe that criminals are the real victims.

Look at their track-record! Has no-one noticed a pattern?

The Clean Slate Act that the ethically challenged Labour/Greens/Jim Anderton party pushed through allows for criminals to claim they have no record of conviction when they have. It is an invitation to lie with full Labour (plus hangers on) government support. Law-abiding prospective employers, acquaintances, and even potential partners are now at a disadvantage because the government has decided, on their behalf, what they can, and cannot, know about a person's criminal past.

Then there's how we manage/miss-manage our most dangerous criminals?

We have high risk sexual offenders let loose in our communities with woefully inadequate supervision. Remember the small rural community of Halkett? Lloyd McIntosh, after raping a six year old in 1989 was found to be unfit to appear in Court and was sent to Lake Alice Hospital. He was subsequently released in 1993 after being considered no longer mentally ill. While he was 'treated' for his problems (albeit unsuccessfully) he was released without ever being held to account for what he did. Within three months he had brutally raped a 23 month old baby girl in Wanganui.

He was found guilty and given a ten year sentence, after which he was placed under a supposed 24 hour supervision regime. Within three months he managed to assault an intellectually handicapped woman while his supervisor remained oblivious, outside the door. He was then given a sentence of just18 months. Having served a scant half of this sentence he came up for parole. It was the intention of Corrections to provide him with a house monitored with the installation not only of alarms and security cameras but also - courtesy of the taxpayers' generosity, Sky TV!! So much for community placement of criminals!

Oh.and we then have prison inmates suing the Corrections department which have now topped $5m! And the costs taxpayers are being forced to bear don't stop there: nearly $400,000 additional spending was required just to defend against the claims in a five month period ending in November last year. The grossly misnamed Prisoner's and Victim's Claims Act ensures that criminals can seek compensation for an offense against them (such as the $40,000 payout for 'hurt feelings' last year) while their victims are left with the possibility of crumbs after an arduous claim process against them. The best protection against inmate abuse is to punish those responsible, not to reward the criminals. If prison guards abuse prisoners then they should be charged and appear in court. Why should prisoners be handed a wad of cash for alleged abuse while the victims of the crime that put them behind bars are left without any compensation at all? We shouldn't forget why criminals are in prison in the first place.

And now for the encore; 'open' prisons?!

The new Corrections minister, Damien O'Connor, is being urged to cut the costs of warehousing the prison population - which ballooned to just over 7,500 inmates - under the pretense of an improved rehabilitation model a la the Finnish approach. Finnish is right! It will be a hard sell.

If money's the problem then why did Labour do away with the private management of prisons? Up until last July the only prison that had achieved international standards in drug and alcohol, literacy and numeracy programs was the privately managed Auckland Remand. Not only the best prison, but it saved the taxpayer around $27,000 per inmate per year when compared to the state provision of prison management. Had all our 17 prisons been as efficient we could conservatively have saved around $150m a year.

And why is it that we the law-abiding - many of whom are victims of crime - are obliged to pay for inmate upkeep to the extent that we are? After all.we are expected to work, pay for ourselves, and taxes. Criminals should be expected to do no less. Rather than an army of expensive psychiatrists doling out anger management forms to tick and fill, perhaps an eight hour day toiling in the fields growing their own vegetables would be a good idea. It works in Alabama and it can work here. There is plenty of work we can give them that won't take jobs away from the law-abiding but will instill in them not only work skills and a work ethic but an appreciation of an honest day's work.

Damien O'Connor is being used by Labour to peddle the soft options. First the Restorative justice plan which was supposed to reduce recidivism by bringing criminals and victims face to face has been shown not to cut re-offending rates (although they should be given more time to iron out the bugs - the jury is still out as far as positive outcomes is concerned).

Next, the Corrections Department CEO Barry Matthews revealed during a Parliamentary select committee hearing that current figures show that inmates who participate in certain rehab programmes are increasing their likelihood to re-offend! Rather than gnash their ideological teeth, the government needs to take notice.and act.

With an 87% recidivism rate (within five years) our failed rehabilitative approach needs to be kicked to the curb. Surely even more softening up is the opposite of what is needed. The probability of detection and punishment exert a significant influence on criminal behavior. There is now plenty of evidence suggesting that punitive policies do indeed reduce or help constrain the growth in crime. In many instances they provide the only viable short-term option for dealing with it.

Charles Murray, in his essay called 'Does prison work?', has described how the number of crimes reported to Police in England and Wales rose over several decades, while the probability of apprehension and incarceration declined. Even though the total number of prisoners increased as reported crime increased, there was a reduced likelihood of apprehension for a serious offence. In contrast to the English and Welsh experience, the United States had a rising rate of apprehension and imprisonment per recorded crime. The decline in crime rates across the US, which began in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s, was largely the result of a policy to increase the use of imprisonment as crime escalated. Murray's argument was simple: 'the falling use of imprisonment is to blame for rising crime'.

When crime is low and stable it is important to maintain the rate of imprisonment per crime, because imprisonment can halt a rising crime rate and eventually turn it around. The US experience showed that crime rates rose when the rate of imprisonment per crime declined, and fell when the rate of imprisonment per crime began to rise.

There are some things prison clearly can't do. It cannot restore family life or socialize a new generation of young males to civilized behavior, nor is it capable of making the unemployable employable. Prison programmes have been spectacularly unsuccessful in the rehabilitation of habitual offenders. Despite the ideas that the Labour liberal ideologues choose to promulgate, there is good credible evidence that the risk of apprehension and the severity of the punishment are the twin pillars that result in a strong deterrent.

We should learn from this and start putting in place initiatives that reduce the number of victims - not go even further down the road of misplaced compassion and tolerance for those who show neither to their victims.

The Labour Government has put political expediency, and its own failed ideology, above the interests of victims and putting the public to needless risk. When all's said and done, it's actually quite simple; we want sentences given to offenders to stick; we want punishment to mean something more than free counseling in a comfortable camp environment; we want the criminal justice system to finally be on our side - not the criminal's; and we want victims to be given a chance to get on with their lives knowing that society puts them first.

Not much to ask is it?


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