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'Settling the score' - Speech

'Settling the score'
Allan Nixon annual lecture
29 June 2000
Minister of Corrections
Hon. Matt Robson


When a crime is committed, we talk as a community about 'settling the score'. There are many different ideas about how we should do that.

But we are all agreed on one thing: that when a crime has been committed, and a score must be settled.

The question is, what is the most effective way of achieving that.

Today I want to talk about

- how we can most effectively settle the score
- about what we are trying to do in our prison and probation service today
- about what we must do to make sure alternatives to serving a sentence in prison, if appropriate, are rigorously, tough and effective.

I believe the score we must always aim to settle once a crime has been committed is two-fold: to meet the needs of victims and to reduce re-offending.

For too long the justice debate has focused almost obsessively on who is tough and who is soft on crime.

The question we should ask is simply this – 'what works?'

That is what drives us to question the present system and its failure to deliver safe communities.

Nearly 80% of prison inmates re-offend within 24 months. That's higher than Australia (37%), Canada (57%), England (56%) and Scotland (69%)


I want to talk for awhile about victims. Many of you in this room know people who have been victims of crime. Many will also know offenders.

All of you know that young and abused victims can grow up to be serious offenders. You will know that if you delve back into the past of many offenders they too have been victims.

The biggest failure of the present justice system is that it has created too many victims.

Fear of crime creates victims too.

A Chief Constable of the Thames Valley Police in England, who use Restorative Justice techniques with good success tells an anecdote based on a real experience to illustrate this.

A young man – lets call him Shane – walks down the street. He sees another young man – David. They are about to pass each other when out of the blue, Shane pulls a knife on David.

He cuts him, robs him and runs away. He now has money to buy more drugs. David is left bleeding.

How many victims have we now? David is the direct victim. He has not only lost his money and been hurt, he has lost his sense of security.

David's family are also victims. They feel angry and powerless because they could do nothing to protect David. Not only that, they feel shock at the random nature of the crime.

The community is the next victim. As news of David's attack spreads, people in his town fear they might be next. The future feels uncertain. People get used to living in fear.

None of us want to live in fear. When I listen to the law and order auction in parliament where politicians try and out-bid each other on who can sound the toughest on crime, I think we all forget that we are united in a desire to keep our families and the people we love safe.

So why can we not simply look at 'what works?'

That is why I am proud to have ring-fenced nearly $5 million for three Restorative Justice court pilots across New Zealand.

- To have added an extra $5 million for the support of victims, witnesses and child witnesses going through the alienating process of a court trial.

- To have cancelled the privatisation of our prison system. Because as Minister I see nothing good in promoting the business of prisons.

I want to be in the business of closing prisons.


But I know that we can only seriously look at closing prisons when we have reduced re-offending.

That is why it is vital that we do the right thing today, when we have offenders inside our prisons so that they don’t return tomorrow.

In the budget we have secured an extra $4.2 million to increase rehabilitation, education and employment skills in the prisons.

Not only that I have been able to add nearly an extra million dollars on top of funds already available for Tikanga Maori programs in the prisons.


I have been travelling around the country visiting as many prisons as I can over the last six months. The other day I was in Hawkes Bay visiting the hugely successful Maori focus unit.

After the official speeches, a Pakeha prison officer took me aside, almost conspiratorially, and whispered in my ear – 'I want to tell you, this approach is really working. I've never seen anything like it.'

Maori focus units are intensive, 24-hour a day units where inmates are emersed in Maori culture.

That moment stuck in my mind, and made me realise that we have staff on the front line in the prisons and in probation who are practical experts in the field. These are the people – like many of you here – who see with their own eyes what works and what doesn't.

So I have made a decision to not only talk to as many staff in the field as I can, but also to bring their voices to public attention.

With my Department I am in the process of increasing the number of Open Days in the prisons where the public and the media can meet staff and inmates.

There is no doubt the time has come to lift the veil of secrecy off our prison system, as we did in the past with the mental institutions.

Today I can announce that I plan to spend a day with South Auckland probation staff, to see what they do on an average day, and how the job might be made more effective. I want to hear from the staff on the front line.

Many of you will have heard about the probation officer John Gilbert who was recently awarded nearly $1 million for proving that stress and ill-health was caused by his job.

Many of you will heard in the news and read the sensational headlines about a few probation officers dismissed from the service for mis-conduct in South Auckland.

It is not fair that a few bring the reputation of the many into disrepute.

But it is clear that morale in the probation service is particularly low. These staff to do one of the most important jobs in society when it comes to reducing re-offending. We have to listen to what they are saying.

There is no doubt that previous governments carry a large part of the responsibility.

In his conclusion, Judge Colgan said changes in the workplace in probation 'were driven… department policy initiatives based upon a then prevailing philosophy of cost-saving, delegation to community/voluntary agencies and a general philosophy of striving to do the same or more with fewer resources.'

This government is determined to break that negative cycle. Whether it is Restorative Justice Court pilots, or rehabilitation in the prisons, or the work done in probation it must be properly resourced and supported.


While it is my job to make sure that our prison and probation service staff are able to do the best and most effective job possible, I am also looking at where appropriate, we might increase the practise of less serious offenders serving their sentence outside of prison.

There has been much mis-information about the use of the Restorative Justice Court pilots.

In many cases, these court pilots will be dealing with serious violent offences. Restorative justice conferences are not alternatives to a prisons sentence, where prison is deemed necessary.

If we go back to the attack on David from the drug addicted Shane, we can see how a restorative justice court conference might work.

Firstly, a conference only proceeds if David wants it to. Shane must also have pleaded guilty and show genuine remorse and a willingness to take part. Shane will also know that this is not a get out of jail free card. His attack was serious and violent and as such will carry a prison sentence. A conference approach will help the sentencing judge to determine the most effective type of sentence for Shane.

David can turn up with family members and support people from the community. Professional staff facilitate. At the end of the conference David should feel safer about the future. He has confronted his attacker and diminished his own fear. Shane has agreed to pay back the money and pay medical bills. Shane's drug addiction has also been clearly identified as a key cause in the crime.

A report from the conference now goes to the sentencing judge, who with this extra information, is able to see that the best place to send Shane is a focused drug and alcohol unit within the prison system.

Shane's chances of re-offending are less. He is off the streets and will receive the treatment he needs. David no longer feels that the tag of 'victim' will be with him for the rest of his live. As much as is possible, his life is restored to its place before the crime.

However it is clear that there are many people in our prisons who don't need to be there.

First time offenders inside for less serious offences, I believe could be turned around from a life of crime more effectively outside of prison.

It is true that any offender, whether serious or not, cannot re-offend while in prison. But this can lead to a false sense of security. Because over 90% of all prison inmates are one day released.

If nothing has been done to change their criminal behaviour prison cannot be said in the long term to be the safest option for the community.

It is true that I do not support mandatory longer sentences across the board. Because I know that longer sentences applied with a sweeping brush don't work.

"The research speaks for itself: a recent Rand Corporation research project from Washington found that if you spend $1 million on dedicated drug treatment, you will reduce the re-offending rate for serious crimes fifteen times more than if you spend the same amount on simply increasing the length of prison sentences.

But it may be that we need to look at giving judges more information so that the use of 'life means life' can be applied more effectively. At present there are 119 offenders on preventative detention. Most will never get out of prison.

But longer sentences across the board will fail to deliver safer communities.

I want prisons to do what they do best: keep violent offenders behind bars, often for long periods of time and deliver concentrated rehabilitation programs. If our prisons are over-crowded with offenders who don't necessarily need to serve their sentence behind bars, then prisons can't do their job properly.

For years, government departments have predicted an alarming rise in the prison population.

There is no doubt that this puts huge strain on the prison service.

Too many people in prison means more money spent on containment and less on rehabilitation work in the prisons.

If we are to look further at sentences served in the community for less serious offences, then we must move carefully.

IIt is vital that sentences served in the community are tough, rigorously monitored and effective if they are to gain public confidence.

"I am keen to have my officials look at the effectiveness of community sentences so far, whether it be Home Detention, community service or our half way houses dotted across New Zealand.

It is just as important for community safety that we invest in the infrastructure of our community sentencing, as it is to invest in the prison service.

I would also like to see more talk about toughening up our post-release programs too so that we can have stricter supervision of offenders once they leave jail.

The tough talk focuses too much on what goes on in prisons, and not enough on what goes on in our communities.


In conclusion, I would stress the need to remind ourselves of what unites us all: a desire to be safe, to keep our loved ones safe, and 'settle the score' in a way in which will most effectively reduce crime and the number of victims in our society.

I would also stress the need for us to work together – government and community – to ensure that community based sentencing gain the confidence of the public by prioritising safety, and reducing the number of people who become victims.

Supervision must be intense, evaluations must be thorough, and the programs rigorous.

If we can do this, then I believe we can look at new ways of using communitiy sentencing.

I also want to network with the prison and probation staff on the ground who can tell us first hand what is working.

Soft? Tough? These are not the questions to ask. We must ask simply, 'what works?'.

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