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Time for ‘truth in sentencing rhetoric’

Simon Power MP
National Party Law & Order Spokesman

4 July 2006

Time for ‘truth in sentencing rhetoric’

Speech to Sensible Sentencing Trust’s ‘State of Our Nation’ dinner

I have said before that the most powerful act the state may exercise over one of its citizens is to deprive them of their liberty.

It is reserved for those who have, by their own act or omission, threatened the right of others to live free from harm and loss. As one loss of freedom leads to another, imprisonment is the social end product of crime.

If you are to believe the Government, the biggest challenge facing the Law and Order portfolio is that we have too many prison inmates.

Both former Justice Minister Phil Goff and his successor Mark Burton have claimed that more prisoners have resulted from tougher sentences introduced under the Sentencing Act 2002.

We have heard a lot of talk in the past about “truth in sentencing”. I would like to take this opportunity tonight to highlight the need for “truth in the rhetoric of sentencing”.

I have obtained a report by the Corrections Department which reveals that growth in the number of prisoners serving longer than two years is “somewhat muted, suggesting that the Sentencing Act 2002 has not necessarily played a significant role in current muster issues”.

On the other hand, that same report also states that the number of prisoners handed down short sentences of six months or less has increased “to a striking degree” – by two-thirds since 2001.

In other words, under this Government it’s not that criminals are necessarily going down for longer. It’s just that more offenders are being put away for short sentences.

An in-depth review of the justice system by Treasury that has recently come into my possession confirms this theory. It states that in addition to more people being remanded in custody rather than bail, and the declining use of home detention, the increased prison muster is also being driven by a greater volume of short-stay prison sentences.

To get a clearer picture of what was happening, I asked the Minister for Courts for figures on the types of crimes committed by those receiving sentences of six months or less. The most significant increases in those sentences since 2001 have been for:

· Driving while disqualified – up 79% from 745 to 1,337
· Dangerous driving – up 105% from 243 to 500
· Driving with excess blood alcohol – up 70% from 934 to 1,591, and
· Theft of objects under $500 – up 104% from 754 to 1,539

Clearly, most of the increase in short-term prisoners has come from traffic-related offences. Now I don’t want to suggest that these aren’t serious offences, often with tragic consequences, because they are. And of course, custodial sentences are appropriate.

But when this Government claims to be tough on crime, I don’t think that is what the public of New Zealand have in mind.

This Government knows that the real cause of the prison muster crisis is the increasing number of short sentences.

That’s why the Minister of Corrections came back from a tour of European prisons proclaiming that “almost 30 percent of the inmates” currently in jail are “no risk to society”.

After spending two hours looking at one prison in Finland, he sang the praises of their low prison rate and use of “open prisons”, where inmates have relative freedom to come and go. But, despite reaching historic lows in the late 1990s, Finland’s prison population has increased by a staggering 40% from 2000 to 2005.

And, for all his enthusiasm about open prisons, 90% of Finnish inmates are committed to closed prisons that are becoming rapidly overcrowded. One such prison, Mikkeli, with a capacity of 65, now holds 112 inmates.

In 2004, there were 46 escapes from Finnish prisons – strangely, over half of them from open prisons. New Zealand had a total of 19 escapes over the same period.

The prison that the Minister visited, Kerava, had five escapes within one week last year. This included an inmate who pedalled out of the gate and onto the motorway on a rickety old bicycle that he found near the prison workshop.

Is this really the kind of prison system the Minister wants for New Zealand?

Unlike Labour, National won’t steal its law and order policy from wherever the Prime Minister goes on her skiing holidays. And unlike Labour, National will not accept a lower standard of public safety, just to get around a political problem. The people in our prisons right now are there because they committed crimes against other New Zealanders.

A government that claims to be tough on crime should not simply be satisfied with an increasing number of prison convictions. But nor should it seek to reduce the number of prisoners by throwing open the cell doors just because it’s “embarrassed”, to use the Minister’s own words.

Let’s take the issue of bail and remand.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons the prison population has increased is because of an increase in remand prisoners.

As a proportion of the total prison muster, remandees have increased from 11% to 19% since Labour has been in office. As the Treasury’s report states, part of the reason is that “Judges’ assessment of community attitudes may be shifting away from a presumption of remand on bail.”

You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that the judiciary are listening to your concerns about the availability of bail. The government, on the other hand, are not listening.

Two months ago, I obtained a confidential Corrections Department memo which proposed that remand prisoners be released on electronic monitoring to “significantly alleviate operational costs and the constant media attention”.

The sort of people who are remanded in custody are those who are likely to re-offend, are considered flight risks, or who may intimidate witnesses - which is why they are denied bail. That document did not mention public safety once.

Then, surprise, surprise, come Budget Day, a $5 million trial of electronic monitoring for prisoners who would otherwise be remanded in custody was announced. Labour claims it offers judges another option. But judges can already remand people either in custody or on bail, so why do they need a further option? Because remand prisoners need to be held in higher-cost high-security facilities – letting them out on electronic monitoring saves money.

Treasury has estimated that reducing custodial remand numbers to the levels of the 1990s would mean that at least one new prison could be postponed or avoided entirely. Again, public safety takes a back seat.

The Government’s focus is clearly on reducing the number of prisoners by softening the sentences that apply to them. That’s wrong.

The best way to reduce the number of prisoners is to cut crime. Cutting crime and reducing the victims of crime should be the focus, not the number of prisoners.

The Government have failed in dealing with the causes of crime.

You only need to look at the way Labour have approached rehabilitation in prisons. The fact that 42.3% of prisoners will be re-convicted within one year of release means that for many, a prison sentence does not mean an end to their offending, just an enforced career break.

And this is where the increasing number of short-term prisoners has some worrying implications.

We know that the average sentence term for prisoners is decreasing while the average age of inmates is increasing. My suspicion is that we are seeing a growing number of offenders, with wider social problems such as substance abuse and mental health issues, attracting multiple short-term prison sentences over their lives.

It is Corrections policy to postpone rehabilitation programmes until two-thirds of a sentence has been served. But those serving sentences of less than two years are automatically released after half of their sentence. So, for those who’ve already jumped a fence at the top of the cliff, there’s no ambulance at the bottom. Just another paddy wagon.

On Sunday night I went to Manawatu Prison with a group of people preaching to prisoners. I spent an hour and a half in a small room with 20-30 inmates. It was very interesting – they didn’t complain about conditions – why would they? But they said they couldn’t correct their lives with rehabilitation courses or employment opportunities because they weren’t available. What are they likely to do when released? Go back to crime.

With 83.1% of inmates having alcohol or drug dependency issues it is, to paraphrase one inmate discussing the issue with me, “bloody ridiculous” that you can only access those courses if you are not an Identified Drug User – I thought that was the point. So we have $11 million to landscape four new prisons but no money for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, correspondence or employment schemes – what odd priorities.

Our prisons may have warm floors, but they also have revolving doors.

Make no mistake – these people must be punished for their crimes against others. A number of them will never be able to be rehabilitated. But not all of them are hard-wired for a life of crime. If there’s no attempt to short that circuit, then releasing them back into society is just like re-setting the clock on a time-bomb. All it will create is more victims. More pain. That is the real crime, and it’s a sin of omission being perpetrated by this government.

National will focus on what the Government is failing to do: reducing the number of victims by putting more effort into crime prevention. Good social policy is an essential complement to an effective law and order policy. And there is good reason to believe that the government is also failing on this front.

Take youth offending for example.

Three years after the baseline review of CYF implored the Government to dedicate more of their resources to youth justice, a recent report admitted that it was still being neglected. This is the same outfit that allows some young offenders to have as many as 10 family group conferences, but can’t tell us whether they actually work or not.

And the Ministers Group that is supposed to be in charge of the Youth Offending Strategy have not met since March 2003.

Labour have had seven years to get this sorted, after promising to “crack down” on youth crime on their 1999 pledge card, and to provide “more support for proven programmes to cut youth offending” in 2002.

There’s also a need for fresh thinking about the broader societal influences on crime, as some of the traditional theories crumble around us.

Where once the Left would blame crime on economic conditions, in the past year record levels of employment have been matched by the biggest single increase in violent crime.

As crime grows in intensity, younger offenders are now more likely to turn to violence. Since the building blocks of character are normally instilled during childhood, we need to think about how we support our parents in the important job that they do. After all, parents are the first government that our children live under.

I said at the beginning that the most powerful act of the state is to deprive one of its citizens of their liberty, as they have denied others their freedom to live without harm. Perhaps real power lies in actually preventing that loss of freedom in the first place, and preventing victims from facing trauma we could avoid.


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