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Robson: A sensible discussion on sentencing

23 April 2004

Hon Matt Robson MP, Progressive Deputy Leader

Speech: A sensible discussion on sentencing

Speech to Napier City Public Forum, 12.15pm April 23.
Forum theme “Napier develops communities not prisons – how?”

It will soon be the silly season in the election cycle. That is right – electioneering will be upon us.

One of our most important issues – the safety of our community – will be reduced to simple slogans and simple solutions as most politicians outbid each other in the law and order auction and accuse each other of being “soft on the criminals”. There is no shortage of candidates for who can shout the loudest. The auction has already begun.

In the meantime when the voice that says that it is “sensible” to concentrate on making prison sentences as long as possible wins the shouting contest then the resources necessary to stem the tide of young people earning those long sentences will not be not provided.

The voice that points out that the constant lengthening of prison sentences has not decreased offending cannot compete in such a contest.

Consequently we get more victims, more prisons and our communities are less safe.

Of course some offenders need to be kept out of the community for long periods. In some cases they are never safe to release back into the community. Of course prisons are part of the answer to criminal offending .Of course the prospect of a prison sentence is a deterrent for some crime.

But common sense tells us that it can’t be the total answer or else the steadily lengthening prison sentences that have been imposed would mean that we would have almost eliminated offending. And we haven’t.

That is because our prison population neatly mirrors our social and economic problems. The high proportion of Maori imprisoned also means that we haven’t solved the issues of a colonized society.

It is in these areas that a sensible discussion on sentencing and the causes of offending will concentrate. We don’t have to get mired in a semantic discussion on “race” as against “needs” based policies. Let us just concentrate on the facts that our inmate population provide us with:

75% of inmates have no educational qualifications.
90% have a history of poor employment or no employment.
80% are from totally dysfunctional families
90% have a history of mental health problems
90% have a history of drug and alcohol abuse

The disaster list goes on and on. What we are looking at is the breeding ground for criminal offending. Short or long sentences this is where offenders come from and largely go back to. And yet the demand is to concentrate resources in the prisons.

And yes good work is done there. Programmes are in place to meet educational and employment needs. The Maori Focus Units drawing on the skills and knowledge of Maori providers are an inspiration. The specialized drug programmes and sex offender units work miracles. But the damage is deep at this stage and the results disheartening.

We know where the best results are. Let me use the example of HIPPY which stands for Home Intervention Programme for Parents and Youngsters. HIPPY tutors go to children struggling with school and life and work along side them to build up their skills and self-esteem. The tutors are low key and low budget. They come from the communities that they work in. They involve the parents and caregivers. And lo and behold – many a “dysfunctional” parent is a community member screaming for help. Many have overcome their own problems and have become tutors, developed self-esteem and gone on to careers that they never dreamed they could have entered before HIPPY.

HIPPY recently launched a book entitled “We talk in our family now”. It is the story of twelve HIPPY tutors, some of whom knew jail.

When I read the stories of the families on the HIPPY programme I cried and I smiled.

I cried for the anguish and torture of young people growing up in circumstances that many of us deny exist in New Zealand and then their struggle to become partners and parents who can provide the love, nurture and guidance that all of our children deserve and that they did not have.

The HIPPY tutors provide the social solidarity that has been missing. It is these parents, typified in the 12 stories who are the heroes. But it is the HIPPY tutors working one to one with families to whom all of us I owe a debt of gratitude.

That gratitude has to be shown by adequate resources from the state coming in behind the tutors and their programmes. If ever proof was needed that victims can become actors and change their own lives the results of the HIPPY programme in the stories of these 12 members of our communities who have become those actors through their own efforts and by linking up with the HIPPY tutors, provide that proof.

And now to government the often missing actor. In 2001 as Minister of Corrections my Department reported to me on proposals for Early Intervention.

The fact that the Department reported enthusiastically on early intervention with struggling families and communities as the best way to reduce crime and imprisonment will come as no surprise to you here today. The Report was aptly named About Time, a name that did not take me long to choose. I feel like one of those struggling authors hawking this report around. The slowness of responding to this most obvious conclusion will also be of no surprise.

About Time’s foreword has the Minister saying: “ Prevention starts with our children. Some offenders imprisoned for the first time are teenagers convicted of their first adult offence- although they may have an extensive history in the youth justice system – these youth are identified as a group for whom imprisonment could be reduced. Once a teenager is in prison their risk of re-conviction and reimprisonment quadruples. We know the earliest possible intervention works best and cost the least. Working with a five year old to change aggressive and defiant behaviour is estimated to cost $5000 and has a success rate of 70 percent; the same behaviour at age 20 costs $20,000 and has a success rate of only 20 percent.”

All commonsense really and well known to those involved with HIPPY. So what options were presented?

Option 1: Encourage high needs young women to delay childbearing. A sexual and productive health strategy for young women and men in child protection, youth justice and adult justice
Option 2: Identify high needs births and support new mother and family by: Extending the scope of Family Start and similar programmes; Screening at birth for risk; Supporting mother and close family
Option 3: Identify behavioural needs at school entry; Early Social learning Model. Screen at primary school entry; Provide support to home and school
Option 4: Early detection and intensive rehabilitation of high-risk young offenders. Identify high-risk children and teenage offenders early in youth offending career. Aggressive intervention against the key risk factors
Options 5 and 6: Early detection and intensive rehabilitation of high-risk teenage offenders.

So what has been done? From a recent cabinet committee report of which I can only give you snippets, (without risking being sent to the Tower,) there has been substantial progress on the development of the initiatives to implement the 10 options; all of the options 1-10 in About Time are being progressed; and in particular Options 1-4 aimed at preventing children progressing to early offending.

The point now is to match promises against the resourcing needs of such programmes as HIPPY.

So what will a sensible discussion on sentencing provide us with?

A focus on what works

A knowledge of the most effective early intervention policies and what resourcing is needed

An understanding of where prison sentences fit into protecting communities

An understanding of what re-integrative processes e.g. strengthening families, employment skills and opportunities , continuing drug programmes etc .are needed to ensure that offenders return to their communities and don’t reoffend

The role of restorative justice practices which are centred on the needs of victims

What support in general is needed for victims of offending.

If we concentrate on what works and listen to those who have expertise, then we can hold a sensible national discussion on offending and sensible sentencing. And we will reach our goal of creating safer communities for all New Zealanders.


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