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Marc My Words - 13 May 2004 - NZ Idle?

Marc My Words. By Marc Alexander MP

NZ Idle? Why do we isolate criminals in prison and insulate them from the obligation to earn their own upkeep? Why do we allow them to be indolent at our expense?

After all, we do not consider it unreasonable to extend such an obligation to the law-abiding. We fool ourselves into thinking that being put in prison is full and sufficient punishment or recompense for the crime committed. Our criminal justice system is predicated on the notion that supervised restriction of mobility and exclusion from society is adequate and sufficient. But this sentiment, masquerading as law, belies the truth that sometimes we attempt to pass laws to repeal human nature. In my view, prison is the location for punishment rather than the punishment itself. The link between work and criminal offending has long been unappreciated.

For example, more than two-thirds of the prison population are unemployed at the time of sentencing; and poor work prospects constitute a huge barrier to reintegration on release providing fertile ground for re-offending. New Zealand has a long history of providing employment for prison inmates, with the expectation that employment skills will help them to reintegrate successfully into society at the completion of their sentence. It is also reasonable to conclude that the provision of work reduces tension and idleness, as well as lowering custodial management costs. Unfortunately, work programmes are currently applied haphazardly, undermining some of their intended outcomes.

Prison inmates do not have access to wages and the normal rights and benefits available for workers. They do however, have incentive payments that are not classified as salary or wages as defined by the Income Tax Act 1994, although these are still considered to be income and must be declared as earnings. Even so, PAYE and ACC levies are not deducted. I ask, why not?

There is currently a range of inmate employment activities including cooking, cleaning and maintenance; community service activities run in co-operation with local bodies, charitable trusts and marae committees; a few industries run by the Corrections Department on farms and forests, as well as some commercial industries in co-operation with the private sector.

Work should be seen as a necessary requirement on inmates to raise their basic skills levels. It reinforces the work ethic; creates incentives to support a crime-free lifestyle; and should inculcate a sense of social responsibility, as well as providing opportunities to occupy idle time productively.

From society's point of view, and in particular that of the victims, work for imprisoned criminals would diminish the sense that an offender is banished to a carefree, three square meals a day life-style, punctuated with random bouts of leisure and entertainment. Furthermore, it would be a good dose of reality for inmates to have to work, to be adequately paid, and receive a weekly wage slip with deductions for tax, board, upkeep, costs incurred in their apprehension, restitution to victims, and anything left over going to their family. The point is, work alone may not be the cure, but it is a cure.

Overseas studies show conclusively that the role of employment cannot be underestimated in breaking the cycle of offending and re-offending. We need therefore to embrace the nobility, the rehabilitative quality and the social responsibility attached to work, enforcing the ethic and principles on those who have chosen to escape them beyond the prison gates. For myself, I consider it to be an inalienable right of the law-abiding to exact recompense for an individual's betrayal of the liberty we cherish in our society. Liberty implies responsibility.respect demands it.


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