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Re-thinking penal reform - Matt Robson Speech

Hon Matt Robson
9 April 2001 Speech Notes

Re-thinking penal reform

Howard League Annual General Meeting
Madras St, Christchurch

¡¥Penal reform¡¦.

These are not the words on the lips of most New Zealanders as they mow their lawns at the weekend or head off to work on a Monday morning.

There are no Mark Middletons marching in the streets for penal reform.

Talk-back callers don¡¦t phone in outraged at the lack of opportunity for prison inmates.

People are warned not to hitch hike, they¡¦re told to sit in the back of taxis not the front, and not to walk across city parks on the way home from work

People are afraid of crime.

Of course it¡¦s true that the chance of being murdered, raped or attacked by a roaming stranger are nearly zero. There are approximately 110 homicides per year and by far the majority of offenders are known to their victims.

But the fear is real, and we have a responsibility to listen to it.

Talk about the rights of prison inmates, and New Zealanders in the thousands see the faces of Taffy Hotene, Paul Dally and the like. Men who have committed the most horrendous crimes imaginable.

They don¡¦t care about the rights of these men. Why should they?

My job ¡V and I think it is your job too ¡V is to reassure the public that the very few in our society who commit such terrible crimes are locked up and will remain locked up - sometimes for the rest of their lives.

Our job ¡V mine and yours - is to separate in the minds of New Zealanders, the terrible few ¡V the Taffy Hotenes, the Paul Dallys, from the sad many.

The sad many drive while disqualified, or steal, or take drugs. They are not the Paul Dallys of the criminal world.

In 1999 29.4% of offenders were in prison for property offences, 22.2% for traffic offences, 20.5% for other offences including drugs.

I¡¦m not saying that these offenders shouldn¡¦t be in prison. But I am saying that what we do with them while their inside will make the difference between a crime rate that goes up, or down.

I believe we can turn some of them away from a life of crime. Tonight I want to tell you about some new initiatives aimed at reducing prison numbers by at least 10%, and reducing crime in our communities.


'Rehabilitation' is a loaded word. Some people have a perception that you commit a crime, go to prison and get showered with therapy, hot meals, and then you get given a job.

Anyone who has visited a prison recently, knows it isn¡¦t like that.

But New Zealanders have a right to know what they¡¦re getting for their rehab buck.

Until recently many so-called experts believed that rehabilitation was a waste of time. That most repeat offenders yo-yo-ed in and out of prison, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

At about 40 years old, so the research went, most criminals just burnt out and stopped offending.

In the meantime countless numbers of victims bore the brunt of the ¡¥do-nothing¡¦ attitude.

Today, thankfully attitudes have changed. It is now accepted that intensive, individualised rehabilitation, if directly targeted at certain groups of offenders can and does make a difference to the rates of crime.

But we must be realistic and aim for achievable goals.

We can make a difference with some teenage offenders, with some repeat disqualified drivers and with some offenders who have drug and alcohol problems

We can reduce the appalling prison numbers in New Zealand and we can do it in a way that will reduce the crime rate for good.

It isn¡¦t just about rehabilitation of course. It¡¦s also about targeting new ways of preventing crime in the first place.

We need to identify kids in abusive homes, kids in trouble at school and work with them before they enter the justice system.

And it¡¦s about making sure that when we turn inmates out prison at the end of a sentence, we monitor their movements in the community and we get them a job ¡V not because we want to, but because this is our best way of preventing re-offending.

My point is this: to achieve crime reduction and a reduction in prison numbers we must have the support of the New Zealand public.

And the only way you¡¦ll get that support is by convincing Kiwis that you¡¦re not ostriches.

Let the New Zealand public hear you say ¡¥some criminals cannot and will not change.' Let them hear you say ¡¥we will fight to protect you from these offenders.¡¦

Then they will listen and believe when you also say ¡V ¡¥some rehabilitation programs are successful with some offenders. Support penal reform. It¡¦s worth it, not because it¡¦s the soft option but because it works.¡¦

They will listen when you say ¡¥some non-violent offenders ¡V especially young offenders - are better treated and cured outside of the toxic mix that is inside our prisons.¡¦

Tell New Zealanders that if we can turn one young person away from a life of crime, and so cancel future victims, then our rehab dollar has earned its way.

One person reformed through rehabilitation is worth at least half a million dollars of ¡¥benefit¡¦ in the form of avoided costs to Police, Courts Prisons, income support and victims.


Last year I was given the go-ahead from Cabinet to set up a Departmental Taskforce to look at ways of reducing the use of imprisonment.

I have a draft report now and I will be releasing a final copy shortly.

In the meantime I want to tell you about some of the new initiatives in that report that I¡¦m particularly excited about.

These focus on the groups of offenders we know we can turn away from a life of crime.

Teenage offenders, disqualified drivers who re-offend, and those offenders with drug and alcohol problems.

The report shows that we can reduce imprisonment by 10% or more. More importantly, we can reduce crime.

I was asked to talk about the politics of penal reform.

You cannot avoid politics if you work in penal reform. I don¡¦t need to tell you that!

But I don¡¦t believe that has to be a bad thing. It is my job to listen to my constituents. It is also my job to be informed, and to make sure that the public is informed.


We live in prison times. Prisons are political places. I wonder what historians will make of us in years to come?

The cartoon image of a man clutching the bars of a prison with both hands is an international sign. In any language we understand it to mean one thing - prison.

It is as familiar to us as the stop sign on roads.

Governments of nearly every country imprison more people than ever before.

Late last year, George W. Bush¡¦s state of Texas became the world capital of imprisonment.

The Justice Policy Institute in Washington reported that Texas locked up more than 200,000 people ¡V more than any other state .

Not only that, the report said (and I quote): ¡¥If Texas was a nation separate from the United States, it would have the world¡¦s highest incarceration rate¡¦. That means higher than China and Russia!

So it¡¦s not the US that has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world - it¡¦s Texas!

New Zealand comes second.

We currently imprisons at a rate of 150 prisoners per 100,000 persons (compared to countries like Scotland and England 120, Australia and Canada, 110)

In 15 years our annual average muster has increased by 99% from 2820 in 1985 to 5665 in 1999.

Countries across Europe have ever increasing prison musters. With one exception: Finland.

Finland reduced its national imprisonment rate from around 180 prisoners per 100,000 of population a generation ago, to the current rate of 40 per 100,000.

This represents a sustained and gradual reduction in imprisonment of around three to four percent a year for more than twenty years.

It¡¦s a success story at a time in history when just about every other country in the world increased its prison populations massively.

But what does this reduction or increase in prison musters have to do with crime? The answer is, not much. But it has a lot to do with politics.

After a particularly horrible crime, for example, the murder of the child Jamie Bulger in England, the British public demanded longer sentences and more people in prison. They got it.

Fear of crime affects policy.

In Finland public opinion demanded that the shamefully high numbers of people in Finnish prisons be reduced.

The truth is, the actual rise and fall of the crime rate has little to do with anything when it comes to deciding to reduce the prison population.

Those countries with a high rate of imprisonment like the United States don¡¦t have a lower rate of crime.

Has crime decreased dramatically in Texas? No. In fact the Justice Policy Institute¡¦s research found that when it comes to reducing crime (and I quote) ¡¥a state-by state comparison shows (Texas) to be lagging behind other jurisdictions which have not increased their prison systems so dramatically.¡¦ (end quote)

During the five years of Bush¡¦s prison-building tenure, Texas had the smallest drop in crime among other large states, and half that of the nation as a whole.

Chucking more and more people into prison does not reduce the crime rate.

But likewise countries with low imprisonment rates don¡¦t necessarily have a lower crime rate to match.

Has crime decreased in Finland? No. And yet it has increased less in the last 20 years than other Nordic countries, which were not reducing the use of imprisonment.

That is a success.

We live in prison times. Particularly in New Zealand. And we have a population afraid of crime.

It is against this backdrop that I propose to reduce the use of imprisonment in New Zealand. And I propose to do it in a way that will, I believe, lower the crime rate.

Can we achieve this? I believe we can..

But only if we have the New Zealand public with us.

It may seem ironic to some of you that with one hand this government is trying to increase sentences for particularly violent and abhorrent crimes and so fatten the jail muster.

While on the other hand we want to reduce the use of prison over time.

I don¡¦t think it¡¦s ironic. I think it¡¦s a necessary contradiction. Necessary to reassure Kiwis that we will keep them safe from the worst offenders.


There are 4 broad ways of reducing the numbers of imprisoned offenders. The first is decarceration ¡V which involves reducing sentence lengths and pruning the list of offences that have prison as a penalty.

That¡¦s what they did in Finland. They stopped sending people to prison for traffic offences and property offences.

(It¡¦s interesting to note that imprisonment for violence and drug offences went up during this process of decarceration.)

The problem with decarceration is that as we have seen in Finland, while it may reduce imprisonment, it doesn¡¦t necessarily reduce crime.

We¡¦re not going to do that.

But there are other alternatives which do, I believe reduce the prison muster and reduce crime:

Prevention, alternative sentencing and rehabilitation.

We must halt the rise (99% in 15 years) numbers in prisons - our prisons are literally bursting at the seams - and we must do it in a way brings down the crime rate.


Here s a shocking fact: most recidivist offenders begin their offending career between the ages of 10 and 14 years.

Many of them will enter an adult jail between the ages of 15 and 18.

Many of them are Maori.

60% of current inmates were first imprisoned as teenagers.

Once in prison their risk of reconviction and re-imprisonment quadruples.

After prison a teenage offender is released, most to re-offend again. More than half re-offend within 1 year of release, and up to 80-90% re-offend within 5 years.

I want to get to them before they end up in prison.

Earliest possible intervention works best and costs less.

For example an intervention for a 5 year old who is aggressive and defiant is estimated to cost about $5000 per case with a success rate of 70%.

The same behaviour at the age of 25 years costs $20,000 and has a success rate of only 20%.

We have to stop disadvantaged kids growing up into a life of crime.

Some of the new initiatives in my draft report involve very early intervention. I will be releasing these shortly.

Tonight I want to tell you about some new ways to catch those teenagers who are already fast-tracking their way to a first lag in an adult prison.

These are the prison inmates of tomorrow ¡V unless we do something today.

Sometimes imprisonment is the only option. Certain crimes demand imprisonment, regardless of age or the lack of a past criminal record.

The public need to be reassured that serious violent offenders will remain in prison, no matter how old they are.

But I want to get to the teens who haven¡¦t made it to prison yet.

Many of these can be turned away from a life in crime far more effectively outside of prison.

Research has shown, the most successful approach to rehabilitation of teenagers involves community based rehabilitation. It involves helping them get a job, and maintaining a high degree of supervision afterwards.


Here¡¦s what I propose.

I would like to introduce a new community based service know as Day Reporting Centres.

These would provide intensive rehabilitation and supervision for young teenage offenders between the ages of 15 and 18.

I asked my department to research this, and Day Reporting Centres can reduce imprisonment of those teenagers otherwise destined for a life of crime by half.


I also want to target disqualified drivers who continue to drive and end up in jail again and again.

Research has shown, this group is likely to respond very well to intense and specific rehabilitation.

We can break the cycle. And if we do that we reduce imprisonment and also increase public safety.

Research suggests that offenders who drive while disqualified break many laws in addition to traffic laws. By the time they are imprisoned for disqualified driving they have an average of 21 prior convictions.

They are often anti-social. They usually have a drug and alcohol problem. Offending often occurs at times of personal stress and helplessness.

We have already started a new approach to tackling this group. The MODS programme ¡V Making Our Drivers Safe. It¡¦s an intensive 100 hour programme.

So far, those offenders who have taken part in MODS have 18% fewer convictions in a similar group who did not participate in the programme.

I would like to expand this programme.

If successful we can reduce the prison population by even further, and increase community safety.


We can reduce the prison population by another 6% if we target more intensely than ever before, those offenders with drug and alcohol dependency.

A recent survey found that 83% of prisoners had a problem with either alcohol or drugs.

Last year I opened a further stand alone drug and alcohol unit in Christchurch because we know this approach gets results

The most successful drug and alcohol programmes in the prisons and in the community reduce re-offending in the high risk group of multiple offenders by 33%.

It¡¦s worth developing this further, reducing the prison population and the crime rate.


Minister of Corrections. It¡¦s a strange title don¡¦t you think? I mean, why beat around the bush? Why not call it Minister of Prisons?

Let¡¦s make it mean what it says. My job is about correcting:

„X Correcting the appalling rates of re-offending.

„X Correcting the statistic that says 80% of prison inmates commit another crime within 24 months of release.

That means if I¡¦m to do my job properly I have to look at what happens long before an offender reaches prison.

In fact long before they even commit an offence.

As Minister I have to have eyes in the back of my head. In fact, in every nook and cranny of our communities.

I see is as part of my job to set up a series of safety nets in the community, around at risk families, in schools and in the community.

This means working with community groups, with iwi and hapu and with other government departments.

Setting up Day Reporting Centres for trouble teens is a safely net for the community.

Targeting the teens who do go to prison with intensive, tough rehabilitation is a safety net.

Breaking the cycle of offending of disqualified drivers, and those inmates with drug and alcohol dependencies is a safety net.

I have to look at what happens when we send someone back into the community ¡V when we close the prison gates and leave the offender in the car park.

Once you enter the risk category, and certainly once you commit a crime and go to prison you become the life member of a certain club.

Membership of this club means that we¡¦ll watch you and supervise your every move. If we think you¡¦re a risk to the community we may bring you back to prison. We may snap an electronic bracelet on your ankle.

But we¡¦ll also target your problems, and if you show progress, help you get a job.

Ex-offenders who get work don¡¦t tend to re-offend and don¡¦t end up back in prison.

That is why I have pushed so hard to develop the inmate employment schemes inside our prisons to get offenders working.

Last year 1,512 inmates gained NZQA qualifications in a range of skills. This number will increase this year.

Inmates worked 5 million hours a year in a variety of work ranging from farming to joinery.

But we mustn¡¦t only train them for jobs. We must help them to get jobs after release, and make sure we keep a constant eye on them in the community.

That is why I have initiated a memorandum of understanding between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Work and Income.

So that Winz staff not only join probation staff to keep an eye on ex-offenders, but also work with individual inmates, even before they are released, to find them work.

I am also in the process of setting up a data base of employers in the community keen to place ex-inmates who have shown good progress in prison, in jobs.

Many from the Business Government Forum in Christchurch, Auckland and Hamilton have already pledged their support.

I hope to announce in the near future, other employer groups who have joined their ranks.

I¡¦m pleased to announce that a pool of about 1000 jobs already exists. This, I believe is a concrete way of reducing future victims


In conclusion, my message tonight is simple: listen to the fear that New Zealanders feel about violent crime.

I¡¦m serious about keeping the most dangerous and violent few behind bars for a very long time. Let New Zealanders hear that you are too. And I¡¦m equally serious about reducing the numbers of people in our prisons.

I believe we can reduce prison numbers and reduce crime by being realistic about who we can¡¦t change and who we can.

I need you to join with me to achieve these goals. It¡¦s not just my job ¡V it¡¦s yours too. I know we can make a difference if we aim for the achievable. Work with me.


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