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Muriel Newman: Labour's Legacy - Welfare & Crime

Labour’s Legacy – Welfare and Crime
By Muriel Newman MP

New figures, released to me last week by the Associate Minister of Social Services, show that in 2002, some 3,203 people had their benefits cancelled due to imprisonment. This means that almost a half of all offenders who committed a crime serious enough to warrant a prison sentence came off a benefit.

While those beneficiaries who commit crime are – like any other population group – a minority, the figures are, nevertheless, not surprising. Police tell me that offending by beneficiaries is rife. They say that – as a rule of thumb – for every 10 people charged with a criminal offence, one may be a professional, two are tradesmen and seven are beneficiaries.

On the flipside, beneficiaries are also over-represented in victim statistics, as they often live in high crime neighbourhoods where violence, drug-taking and alcohol abuse is common.

Official data shows that the largest group of offenders in prison, by ethnicity, is Maori. They comprise well over half of all inmates. Two-thirds of Maori inmates came off a benefit, and Maori were three times more likely to offend from the Domestic Purposes Benefit than European – and twice as likely from the Unemployment Benefit.

Increasing numbers of Sickness and Invalids beneficiaries are also committing crimes serious enough to attract a prison sentence. With imprisonment from the Sickness Benefit having grown by 40 percent over the past three years – and 52 percent from the Invalids Benefit – this worrying situation indicates a real need to tighten the criteria for controlling the granting of benefits. Sickness and Invalids benefits should only be available to those who are genuinely incapacitated.

The good news in the data is that offending from the Unemployment Benefit – which overwhelmingly accounts for the greatest level of offending – declined by 18 percent between 2001 and 2002. No doubt this is due to the fact that, while other benefits have risen during that period, the Unemployment Benefit has fallen.

Commonsense tells us that people who do a hard day’s work are far less likely to want to go out at night and commit crime, than someone fit and able who is paid to do nothing. Yet the present system, leaves them with too much time on their hands and not enough money – it is a recipe for disaster.

The answer lies in making sure that those people on welfare, who can work, take personal responsibility for getting a job and earning a living. By linking them into a 40-hour week of education, training and organised job search – and supporting them with childcare help, transport and the like – they are able to work when a suitable job becomes available, and any barriers they had will have been removed.

Another answer to a Parliamentary Question I recently received identified that more than 70 percent of all beneficiaries had been on welfare for over a year. This is a major problem because, while most people can survive on a low income for a short period of time, longer lengths of time lead to greater hardship. That is why it is sensible to advocate welfare time limits, as an important feature of a welfare reform programme. Time limits create a sense of urgency, signalling that people must take responsibility for their own livelihoods.

The data highlighted the extent of the long-term dependency problem, showing that of those people who have been on a benefit for a decade, 16,000 people have been on the DPB, 5,000 on the Unemployment Benefit and 4,000 on the Sickness Benefit.

The fact that so many people have been on a benefit for so long should be a wake-up call for the Government. Clearly, these people are unable to find work themselves, and need professional help and support. It is these people who should be the focus of the welfare department’s greatest effort. The department’s success should be measured by the level of genuine reduction in long-term dependency.

In researching this column, I have been struck by the yearly increase in the number of prison inmates. In 1999 there were 5,600 people in our prisons. In 2003 there are 5,850 inmates, and upward of 500 offenders serving their sentence on home detention.

The cost of keeping an inmate in a high security prison run by the Corrections Department is $72,000 per year. The cost for a minimum-security prison is $54,000. In comparison, the cost for inmates in Auckland’s new high security remand prison, run under a private prison management contract with Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), is $43,000 a year.

However, in spite of the prison being an outstanding, cost-effective success, Labour – which is ideologically opposed to private enterprise – intends to pass legislation later this year to prohibit any future private management of New Zealand prisons.

Some of the most violent offenders in our prisons are those in urgent need of mental health treatment. It has been estimated that some 10 percent of the entire prison population, is in that category. However, the prison system is such that providing on-going mental health treatment to someone in jail is virtually impossible. As a result, many such prisoners literally go up the wall – creating a significant threat to themselves and others – when they should be being stabilised with proper medication.

In reality, these offenders should not be in prisons, but in a forensic mental health facility, where they can have access to appropriate medical treatment. The problem is that the only such facility – Auckland’s Mason Clinic – has only 84 beds. This is nowhere near enough to meet the demand. With correct treatment, many of these offenders – who are presently high-risk prisoners – would not need costly high security management, and would require only medium or low security care. The establishment of more forensic beds should, therefore, become an important priority.

Low security prisoners comprise the bulk of the prison population. It has been further suggested that housing them in facilities resembling army-type facilities could save significant costs and free up prison beds for those repeat offenders who commit most of the crime in our communities, and should be locked away.

If we are serious about reducing crime in our community, then welfare reform and prison reform are both important components of such a strategy.


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