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O'Connor - Time to think laterally

12 May 2006 Speech Notes


Time to think laterally

Damien O'Connor - Address to the Prison Fellowship National conference
Straight Thinking is not enough – it's time to think laterally
9am, Silverstream Retreat, Upper Hutt


Kia Ora.

The Labour government has a vision for New Zealand.

It is about all New Zealanders having the support and choices they need to be able to fulfil their potential and own a stake in the future.

Corrections has a vital role to play in this vision. A well-functioning Corrections system is vital to the wellbeing of New Zealand, as it is to any democracy.

Making sure that people who commit crime are held accountable helps to build a fair society, which protects the law-abiding citizen.

So, how well does the New Zealand system function?

Well, despite what you may read in the papers or see on TV, Corrections has a good story to tell. The department demonstrates very good results in a number of important areas – ones that would reassure the general public.

The story is this: Since the late 1990s, breakout escapes from prison have plummeted by 80 per cent, serious attacks on prison officers have dropped by 90 per cent, and the number of suicides by prisoners has halved.

What was then a demoralised workforce is now more productive and the job of Corrections officer is no longer such a poisoned chalice. Challenges remain but it is encouraging that since January last year, 800 new staff have committed to joining the ranks.

This is no accident. In the 1990s, prisons, along with most other infrastructure, were starved of investment. Since then, the Labour-led government has undertaken a massive modernisation project.

Almost $1 billion has been spent on new prisons and on additional beds at existing sites so that by 2007, 2100 new beds will have been added by this government.

Last year the government allocated a further $4.1 million over four years for crime prevention within prisons.

The number of drug-dog teams has doubled, all visitors and their vehicles are subject to searches.

This concentration on security has resulted in a doubling of contraband confiscated from prison visitors in the past three years.

This sustained investment clearly demonstrates that Labour is committed to an effective, modern Corrections system for New Zealand. We must continue to do all we can to keep the public safe from serious, violent and dangerous offenders.

Of course there is always room for improvement, but these facts demonstrate the department is far from the dysfunctional agency some like to make out. It fulfils its core duty – of protecting the public – very effectively.

During this time, prisoner numbers have increased ahead of forecast – yesterday the number of people in our prisons was 7530.

I will not pretend managing these extra numbers has been easy. But through the cooperation of managers, unions, Police and court staff, every offender who has been sent to Corrections has been found a secure bed.

Finding beds for prisoners has been something of a growth industry in recent years. It has definitely moved ahead of inflation, and it's about time for a recession!

In recent years, the emphasis has been placed on rebuilding the system and tightening security, however the time has come to move the department forward.

An area I intend to focus on is the way Corrections works to rehabilitate prisoners and re-integrate them into our communities – from where, after all, they started.

As well as needing offenders to repay society in order to serve justice, a healthy and safe society needs them to be given every opportunity to acknowledge their failures and mistakes and become constructive members of our communities.

This is the role Corrections can play in reducing our shamefully high imprisonment rate.

I am determined to make a difference to the way we manage offenders, and work is already well underway to lift our performance in this area.

This will require a change of thinking throughout the system.
I will come to this later.

Before I outline what I have in mind I want to take you back six months to the day I was told I was the new Minister of Corrections.

My first thought was: What have I done to deserve this?

The shock soon wore off, and as the sense of trepidation subsided I was quickly able to identify the job as a real test, and an opportunity to make real progress in a difficult area.

So began a steep learning curve.

What did I know about Corrections? Not much. Apart from the fact that the Labour-led government had invested heavily to modernise the system, and that muster numbers were rising faster than expected putting the system under pressure.

But what to do about it? Build yet another prison, and another and another…?

No, there must be a better way. So I started to ask questions. Hundreds of questions. I asked colleagues, friends, officials, members of the public, lobby groups – even prisoners themselves.

What emerged surprised me. People up and down this country wanted a different approach to the way New Zealand deals with offenders.

As expected, they put a high value on community safety and acknowledged Labour's determination to lock away dangerous and violent offenders.

But there was also a strong undercurrent that too many people were being sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

And further, there had to be a more productive way for lower-level and non-violent offenders to repay their debts to society.

In short, I sensed there was an opportunity for a different approach.

Then three things happened in quick succession.

First, the realisation and publicity that in the Western World New Zealand is second only to the United States in the rate at which it locks people up.

Second, I had to ask my colleagues to find an extra $140 million to finish the prison build programme – money that we all thought could be better spent on schools and hospitals, and on rehabilitation programmes.

And thirdly, I had the opportunity to visit prisons in Finland, Britain and the Netherlands.
As you know, accompanying me on that trip was the Prison Fellowship's Kim Workman and Garth McVicar, from the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

The one thing I knew they had in common was that both were passionate New Zealanders with knowledge of Corrections who wanted what's best for this country – but with different views on how to get there.

They come to the Law and Order debate from slightly different perspectives, you could say. I must admit the old trepidation re-surfaced again there for a while. What had I let myself in for?

We toured the same five prisons, spoke to the same prisoners, had hours of long, sometimes heated, discussions, disagreed on some issues, reconsidered our views on others and tossed ideas back and forward.

And, do you know what happened? We discovered that we did actually have many things in common. Society should be protected from dangerous, violent people – for whom there is little option but to remove their liberty for long periods of time. But for many other offenders, there must be a better way.

A way that costs our country less – in both financial and social terms, and one that can meet the needs of us all – law-abiding citizens, victims of crime, and as a society our obligation to give people a second chance.

If myself, a newcomer charged with leading our Corrections system, and these two passionate advocates for change could find common ground then we were definitely on to something.

After all, as international research clearly shows, there is no relative link between the imprisonment rates and crime levels in a society. Prison is not an effective deterrent for too many.

The trip reinforced my growing conviction, pun not intended, that, with some fresh thinking, change is possible in New Zealand.

The secret in Finland was that all political and interested parties took a non-partisan approach to the challenge of reducing its imprisonment rate.

When we arrived back in New Zealand and started to tell our stories.

The response was amazing, far surpassing my expectations. The media played its part too – editorial after editorial came out in support of a new cooperative, pragmatic approach.

Since my return, I have discussed our rate of imprisonment at length, arguing vigorously for a greater use of alternative sentences, where appropriate.

Up to 30 per cent of those sentenced to imprisonment serve no more than 13 weeks in prison. That is too short a time for Corrections to do anything meaningful with these prisoners.

They clog up the prison system, which should, in my view, be used to protect society from dangerous, violent offenders, and they use valuable resources that could be more effective in other areas of offender management.

We have to assess whether these short sentences for non-violent, lower risk offenders have any real deterrent value. I think it is time for us to look at options for offenders to pay back their debts to society in a more constructive way.

There is a cross-justice sector initiative underway that is exploring all the options. I will leave it to my colleague, Justice Minister Mark Burton, to inform you of its progress when he addresses you on Sunday.

The Law Commission is also taking a hard look at sentencing options, as you will hear from Warren Young.

And in Parliament it is encouraging to see there is growing support among astute politicians for cross-party cooperation in finding ways to reduce the rate of imprisonment. I look forward to a constructive panel discussion on this very topic later today.

I note also that the Justice and Electoral Select Committee is to conduct an inquiry into victims rights. All these developments are signs that we are moving in the right direction.

I have also challenged the Corrections Department to investigate, implement and progress many changes I believe are necessary at this point.

That will require a change in thinking and culture, on several levels.

The first strand involves the department continuing its strong performance, and reassuring the public that whatever sentence is handed down by the courts will be carried through professionally.

I have already mentioned the department's good results in key areas, such as reduced rates of escape.

But equally impressive are New Zealand's statistics on home detention. Ninety nine per cent of people do not re-offend or abscond while on home detention and are less likely to re-offend beyond their sentence.

This should send a strong message to the judiciary that they can have confidence in Corrections' handling of this tougher-than-you-first-think sentence type.

Another strand is creating an environment where motivated prisoners are able to gain the help they need to improve their lives.
Again, what I have in mind requires a shift in thinking. It involves putting the onus for rehabilitation firmly on the shoulders of prisoners, so that they hold in their hands the means to find a better life.

As we know, resources are finite. Corrections soaks up more than half a billion dollars in operating funding every year, so making the absolute best use of these resources is vital.

New Zealanders and Treasury in particular demand such levels of accountability.

Instead of spreading a thin layer of the tens of millions of dollars we spend annually on rehabilitation, education and work programmes each year, I want the money to be better targeted.

For those who are dead set against rehabilitating themselves, or who are in denial, there is little that can be done.

For offenders in this group, I want to create an environment where they are constantly challenged to stop making excuses for their actions.

Failing that, the sentence of preventative detention, which the Labour government broadened in its last term, is a sad but necessary option.

It is in the wider, far larger group of offenders, where we can make a real difference.

For a number of these people, substance abuse is a significant contributor to their offending.

It can also be a lack of self-worth, no family or community support, poor health, poverty of mind or spirit, the delusion that crime is justified or even cool, no desire to work, nowhere else to go.

You know the reasons!

Traditionally, the Corrections Department has developed and applied programmes that address criminal thinking and behaviours.

Some are effective, others less so. The less effective ones are being replaced with more intensive programmes and we will continue to make necessary.

The Corrections system must also take account of other factors that contribute to crime – issues such as illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse, a history of unemployment and poor life skills.

But for any interventions to work, prisoners have to want to change.

Over and above their health needs, if prisoners want to work, receive training, get a place on a drug and alcohol course, they have to show they are motivated and want to change.

Work and education must be considered a privilege, not a right in prison.

Those who don't want to engage – those who don't put their hand up – don't have to. We can't make them. But they will lose the benefits of longer unlock hours, the gift of being able to learn new skills and to do an honest day's work.

In short, they will, by their own stubbornness, spurn a genuine chance to create a better life for themselves.

But those who are determined to grasp the opportunity – with both hands – must receive the full support of the department.

They need to be able to move though a series of progressive steps – treatment, skills-training, work experience, to qualifications – and finally, towards the end of their sentence, they will have the opportunity to earn the trust of employers and find worthwhile and sustainable jobs.

In the lead-up to their release prisoners should earn the right to enter self-care units – present on most prison sites – which help them prepare for life outside the wire. Or, if New Zealand is ready, perhaps they can go into resettlement, or open, prisons.

These resettlement prisons are in use in all of the countries we visited on the European trip. They allow prisoners to work in the community during the day and come back to the prison at night.

This helps prepare them for real life, and the money they earn contributes to their keep. In my view, it could also be used in part to compensate victims of their crimes.

This concept is a successful part of incentive-based systems overseas.

Is the time right for us to talk about resettlement prisons in New Zealand? I think it's time for the discussion.

But I repeat – any of these measures would be for suitable prisoners only.

First they would have to prove they are ready to make the change, and have a track record during their sentence that demonstrates they want to improve their lives.

Providing this graduated, co-ordinated route through the prison system and a final link with employers is critical if we are to reduce re-offending.

For this to work, we need to ensure there are sufficient employment opportunities – as I stated in yesterday's launch of the new Prisoner Employment Strategy.

Finding worthwhile jobs is shown to lower the number of offenders who are reconvicted – hardly rocket science.

The strategy represents a major shift in emphasis for Corrections. The targets are:

Provide employment training to all suitable prisoners.
Develop a partnership with industry to ensure the skills of prisoners are relevant to the labour market.
Ensure prison-run businesses fulfil social as well as commercial purposes.
Expand the Release to Work programme.

A work plan for the strategy will be ready within the next month.

The employment strategy adds to a number of initiatives already underway that are geared towards improving results. These include:

A real focus on providing accommodation for released prisoners.
Ensuring a closer link between the Department of Corrections and the Ministry of Health and DHBs to provide mental health and drug and alcohol treatment.
Strengthening the department's effectiveness with Maori offenders.
Technology to prevent cell-phone use in prisons.
Checking that our sentence planning is fair and effective.

I have been in this job for six months!

Success will be me doing more time and many doing less.

I am determined to make a difference.

Fewer people coming back into prison, while continuing to protect our communities, and assist in a whole-of-government approach that reduces crime is our goal.

There are no secrets to achieving this – better education, better health and greater opportunities for young people regardless of their social background.

The Labour-led government is determined to do more towards making improvements in every single one of these social and economic areas.

While not perfect, we have made huge progress towards meeting these goals. Working For Families will help thousands of families realise their potential, the minimum wage has been lifted and unemployment in New Zealand has reached a 20-year low.

I would like to end by setting us all a challenge.
We must start to think laterally – the public, politicians, the media, Corrections staff, academics and volunteers.

We must also strive for consensus. As I have said, I believe finding common ground is possible, and essential. If Garth, Kim and myself can find it, then so can we all.

Over the next three days, this conference will grapple with many of the issues I have raised.

"How do we reduce our imprisonment rate?"

The answer is here in this room.

Thank you.

ENDS

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