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Prison crisis: Govts stuck in system that doesn't work

By Tania Sawicki Mead*

Opinion - Criminal justice has been competing with a heavyweight roster of pressing needs in the lead up to this Budget: education, health, and social services in particular.

Those involved in law and order and the justice system egearly awaited news about whether the Budget would address the prison crisis, in particular an expansion of Waikeria prison. Photo: NZ Corrections Department

Expectations were running high about whether yesterday's news would reveal the government's decision on the proposed mega-prison at Waikeria.

Budget 2018 does not give us any clear answers.

What it does show is how, having invested in failure for so long, successive governments are struggling to turn that investment around. If we only spent money on things that worked in criminal justice, we would likely end up with a dividend.

Prison sentences impose an astronomical cost on society, both for those who serve them as well as their community. A child with a parent in prison is ten times more likely to end up in prison themselves. In Aotearoa, one in every 124 Māori person is behind bars.

However, decades of dubious 'tough on crime' rhetoric from political leaders of all stripes has meant we are stuck in a system that does not work. Indeed, it makes things worse.

Still, we'll take hope where we can get it.

There is no mega-prison as of yet, a small glimmer of hope that this government is not willing to throw a billion dollars down a hole and set it on fire in the hope that this will address our prison crisis. Budget 2018's $200 million for 600 prison beds in 'rapid build' units may indicate a short-term stopgap measure to ease pressure while other changes are worked through.

Neither was there any signs of significant investment in those same core services that would help us to move away from our punitive model of justice and start addressing drivers of crime.

There is a near total absence of additional funding for drug and alcohol treatment or any specific crisis mental health initiatives that would help those most at risk. This despite research by Corrections in 2016 which found that 91 percent of prisoners have a lifetime diagnosis of mental health or addiction disorders.

Mental health and addiction issues are driving people into the criminal justice system because they are not being dealt with elsewhere. The result is that too many people lose jobs, opportunities and relationships because of an issue that should be dealt with in the community.

Nor do we see any significant investment in incomes and security for the most vulnerable families, with changes to the benefit system and other social development supports still far off.

It's not all bad news. It's extremely positive to see the allocation of $58 million for housing up to 300 people a year on bail or parole. There is no clearer proof of our skewed justice system than in the fact you may spend six months in prison waiting for trial because you rent from Housing NZ, live in an overcrowded house or do not have housing at all.

Extra funding for hiring 270 parole officers by 2022 could genuinely help to address reoffenders. But it would also require a change in mandate for those officers to ensure parolees are given a chance at reintegration.

In addition, the $13.4 million that will help pay for 17 year olds being included in the Youth Court jurisdiction will reap huge long-term savings as more young people are kept out of adult prison.

But it is not actually about money.

Fundamentally what will make a difference to our communities long term is legislative change. The prison crisis is a man-made crisis, a reflection of our legislative settings and our acceptance of systemic discrimination against Māori, not of crime. We'll wait to see how much leadership this government is willing to show to achieve their 30 percent target, but can't wait for long.

*Tania Sawicki Mead is director of JustSpeak, a youth-led network advocating for transformational change in the criminal justice system. She is based in Wellington, where she has worked on human rights issues for the past ten years in the community sector, government and in politics.

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