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Bulging Prisons Need 'Vacancy' Signs

Bulging Prisons Need 'Vacancy' Signs

Tuesday 7 Sep 2004
Stephen Franks
Press Releases -- Crime & Justice

Prison overcrowding is a transparent case of Government mismanagement that presses police, courts, and corrections officials to release criminals early - or not to lock them up at all, ACT New Zealand Justice Spokesman Stephen Franks said today.

"Messrs Swain and Goff are claiming that overcrowding is a result of their changed sentencing and parole laws. How can that be when 2004 prison musters are around the levels predicted five years ago?" Mr Franks said.

"The argument doesn't stack up. What we're seeing is the tail end of the previous Government's crackdown on crime. Focussing on headline sentences of 20 years or more, any sentence imposed under Labour's new laws would not impact on overcrowding until around 2012. In March 2004, the Justice Ministry's own report on the Sentencing Act said:

`The use of imprisonment in 2002/03 was the same as in the four previous years, with 8% of all convicted cases resulting in a custodial sentence. This was not unexpected because none of the changes was intended to increase the use of imprisonment as a sanction.'

"In 1999, officials - before they knew of Labour's sentencing and parole changes - briefing the incoming Corrections Minister projected a prison population growth that would have given around 6,500 by the end of 2004. They said a new Northland prison would be needed by 2002, a new South Auckland prison by 2003, a new women's prison in Auckland by 2003, and a replacement prison in Dunedin by this year - none have been commissioned.

"Despite calling the law changes a toughening up that would increase prison musters, Mr Goff hasn't even managed to prepare for the predicted musters - maybe he didn't believe his own claims. Meanwhile, his Sentencing Act tells judges to fine, and only imprison when there is no alternative. Parole was changed to release even violent offenders, and home detention was designed to limit prison demand.

"Labour blames community objections to new prisons, but the RMA's bias against changes to the status quo has been known for years. A competent Minister takes RMA delays into account in planning - but Messrs Goff and Swain's Cabinet blocked real reform of the RMA.

"Overcrowding shouldn't persuade judges to make sentences softer. It's up to the Government to ensure court orders can be implemented. `Punishment' was omitted from the Sentencing Act, but prison overcrowding is no excuse to stop punishing crime.

"Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a solution: over a thousand criminals are housed in tents, in Tent City Jail, under a huge pink neon sign assuring there are always `Vacancies' - we need signs like that," Mr Franks said.

For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.

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