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Burton: Public engagement key to crime prevention

25 Jul 2006
Public engagement key to sustained crime prevention

My Ministerial and Parliamentary colleagues, Member of Judiciary and distinguished participants, good morning. It's a pleasure to be here today to address this seminar, which I'm sure will be an important contribution to the continuing debate on how to best prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders, and address New Zealand's increasing rate of imprisonment.


My Ministerial and Parliamentary colleagues, Member of Judiciary and distinguished participants, good morning. It's a pleasure to be here today to address this seminar, which I'm sure will be an important contribution to the continuing debate on how to best prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders, and address New Zealand's increasing rate of imprisonment.

I particularly want to welcome Professor Mike Hough and Professor Julian Roberts. Yesterday several of my Ministerial colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet with Professors Hough and Roberts and I know you will find what they have to say extremely informative and interesting.

Although I do not believe that any other nation has discovered the panacea that will address all the issues that lay before us, it is important that we continue to look at, and evaluate, interventions that have proved effective in reducing crime in other jurisdictions.

At the Prison Fellowship's Annual Conference in May I outlined the government's vision for the justice sector. In essence this government sees a society and an economy where all families, young and old, are safe and secure so that they are able to reach their full potential and prosper.

Five core pillars underpin the government's objectives. They are:

- Making crime prevention work;

- Putting in place effective sanctions that address crime and criminal offending, and which have the confidence of the public;

- Improving public access to justice;

- Maintaining the integrity of the justice system;

- Modernising legal frameworks.

Accordingly, Government initiatives must continue to address crime with policy that reduces its occurrence, helps victims, supports those who genuinely want to turn their lives around, and targets repeat offenders and hardened criminals and their activity. These are all critical planks in an effective, long-term policy programme.

In May I made the point that we still have to be tough on crime and its causes. We do, and we are. But I do not believe that this even begins to tell the full story of what we want to, what we must, achieve in the justice sector, or the complexity of some of the challenges we face as a nation.

Key to addressing these complex issues is ensuring that a broad, robust and well informed public debate takes place in which the issues are discussed openly and honestly. A debate that goes beyond politicians, officials and lobby groups but reaches out via networks into the wider community.

In addition, resorting to the rhetoric of fear to stir emotions, as some have done recently, does not, in my view, make a particularly useful contribution to this debate. Nor does it, I believe, give credit to the inherent ability of New Zealanders, if given the opportunity, to consider issues and form views based on the values of fairness and justice which I believe underpin our society.

The growing prison population

I believe it's important to look at some of the drivers behind the focus on reducing crime and the prison population in New Zealand.

Aiming to reduce the growing prison population isn't simply a response to the growing costs of more prisons, but let's be very clear, every dollar we spend on a new prison is a dollar less for our health system or our children's education.

Nor is it driven simply by a will to improve our ratings when we are compared to other industrialised nations in the number of our citizens we imprison - although it is my strong conviction that our high incarceration rate does not reflect well the values we as New Zealanders hold dear.

A key driver for seeking to reduce the prison population is the recognition that for some offenders, there are other interventions that are more effective in reducing re-offending than imprisonment. Indeed there is ample evidence that prison does little to deter people from re-offending when they are released. This is why we are actively considering alternative interventions to imprisonment for some offenders.

However, let me be very clear. For serious repeat offenders and hardened criminals, from whom the public must be protected, there is probably no other option than imprisonment, because the safety of our community must be paramount.

So, even though this country now has the lowest reported crime rate in 25 years, this government has no intention of being complacent. We will continue to look at and introduce new ways to prevent crime, which have the confidence of the community.

Effective Interventions

As many of you will be aware, a team of officials from across the state sector, led by the Justice Ministry, is working with the Ministers on Effective Interventions options to take this work forward.

In coming weeks Cabinet will consider the outcomes of this work. My Ministerial colleagues and I have approached this work with open minds as to what these alternative approaches should be, but I anticipate that resulting initiatives will focus on three elements:

·Tilting the balance earlier to prevent crime;
·Using alternatives to prison - where this is appropriate;
·Adopting smarter uses of prison resources.

Tilting the balance

Early intervention has been shown to work both in New Zealand and overseas. It is clearly the most desirable and, I suggest, effective way of achieving long-term reductions in crime, and preventing people from ending up in prison, through helping to build stronger, healthier families and communities.

I believe we can make significant gains in this area through expanding early interventions, focussing efforts on at-risk youth, and strengthening the Police's crime reduction role.

Alternatives to imprisonment

Crime reduction policies, while vital, take time before their full impacts are realised. Therefore, in addition to investing earlier to prevent crime, the second element of the government's work involves looking at alternatives to prison.

There are a number of promising options, such as increasing the use of home detention, restorative justice and strengthening community sentences.

Home detention, when appropriately - and I want to emphasise - when appropriately - used, has several substantive advantages over imprisonment:

·It has low reconviction and re-imprisonment rates compared to other sentences. For example, around 13 percent of people who serve a home detention sentence will subsequently be imprisoned within the next two years. The equivalent figure for those who have served a prison sentence of less than two years is around 40 percent.
·It has very high compliance rates. The rate of recall to prison for offenders who have breached their conditions is very low (around 1.5%).
·It is much cheaper than imprisonment at around one third [$21,640] of the annual cost of an inmate in minimum security [$59,170].
·It enables offenders to more readily re-integrate into the community, which in turn reduces the chances of re-offending.

To ensure it is effective, however, we need to make sure that only suitable offenders are selected. As well as being pivotal to the success of its use, this is vital in ensuring that the public has confidence that home detention is not simply a "soft option".

Ensuring its effective and appropriate use is a key driver for the current review of home detention, which is being undertaken by the Government, in conjunction with New Zealand First.

Another area showing promise, particularly for victims, is restorative justice. This intervention provides offenders with the opportunity to come to terms with their offending and its impact on their victims.

The pilots running indicate that restorative justice does have some positive impact on re-offending. Most significantly however, the evaluations demonstrate clear benefits for many victims. In essence: the pilots have shown that the restorative justice process was useful in helping victims put the incident behind them.

Smarter use of prison resources

Even if we can make better use of alternatives to prison, incarceration will still be an integral part of sentencing policy. Hence, the third element of the government's work Led by my colleague Damien O'Connor focuses on making smarter use of prison resources.

This government believes that the developing strategy to effect a major shift in emphasis in Corrections to provide for a progressive series of steps through treatment, skills training, work experience and even, where appropriate, gaining work-related qualifications as a means of rebuilding a productive life beyond prison - is a critical factor in both reducing offending and the prison muster.

Concluding comments

I made the point earlier that a broad, open and well-informed debate is fundamental to addressing the complex issues facing us. Achieving long term and sustainable reduction in crime requires engagement across society, and the consideration of all points of view.

Hence, I thank you all for your attendance today and encourage you to look for other opportunities to further public discussion on these issues. I would also like to thank those who have organised this seminar and finally our Chair - Professor John Pratt from Victoria University. I look forward to today's presentations and discussions.


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