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PM: Address to Justice Sector Stakeholders

Tuesday 15 August 2006

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Address to Justice Sector Stakeholders
On Proposed Changes to
the Criminal Justice System

Banquet Hall
Parliament Buildings

10.30am

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Thank you for attending today's briefing on the government's plans to improve New Zealand's criminal justice system.

Our Labour-led government is committed to a nation where all families, young and old, are safe and secure and can reach their full potential.

Central to this commitment is having a criminal justice system which protects our communities by punishing offenders appropriately, cutting reoffending rates, and making better use of our prisons. If we get the settings for the criminal justice system right, they will in time contribute to further reductions in crime.

Today I will announce significant changes we are proposing to how offenders are sentenced and how those sentences are served. I will also outline measures we are taking to provide offenders with better rehabilitative programmes to lower reoffending rates.

The Ministers of Justice and Corrections, and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, President of the Law Commission, will then briefly detail the work they are doing to achieve the outcomes we are seeking.

Since 1999, the Government has delivered on its commitment to get tough on crime and protect the rights of victims.

The Sentencing Act 2002 aimed to deliver longer sentences for serious offenders. The effect has been seen in longer sentences, particularly for the most serious crimes.

In addition, we have steadily increased police numbers, and are adding another 1,000 front-line officers pursuant to our confidence and supply agreement with New Zealand First. We have also increased funding to the courts.

Our policies are having an impact, and last year's recorded crime rate was the lowest level in over 20 years.

Official statistics show that the overall number of recorded offences per 10,000 people has dropped over the past ten years - from 1,271.4 in 1995 to 994.2 in 2005.

More effective and efficient policing, and our country's stronger economic performance, which has put 337,000 more people into work over the past 6 ½ years, have contributed to the downward trend in the crime rate.

Even as the crime rate has been falling, however, there has been a sharp rise in the prison population. It has been growing at a rate faster than that for the general population.

New Zealand has the fifth highest rate of imprisonment in the OECD. Our rates are higher than those of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia – countries we like to compare ourselves with.

By 30 June this year the number of inmates in New Zealand prisons had climbed to 7,700, compared to only 4,530 a decade ago.

To deal with this growth, the Government has already spent close to $1 billion on building four new prisons and on adding capacity at existing prisons. This major construction programme has added more than 2,000 beds to the prison system. Forward projections, however, suggest that even more may be needed.

The most recent forecast by the Ministry of Justice projects prisoner numbers reaching 8,602 by September 2009, and 8,956 by September 2011. Numbers at this level are neither financially nor socially sustainable for New Zealand – and, I stress, these increased projections come at a time when crime rates overall have been significantly reduced. Something doesn't add up.

I should say that in recent months the prison muster has been relatively stable, but, given that peak numbers are generally experienced around September, there is a little while to go yet before it will be clear whether numbers will plateau around their present levels.

Prudent planning to accommodate the numbers earlier forecast will continue in the meantime, until there is stronger trend evidence to support revising those plans.

Our goal must be to get the imprisonment rate back to something more consistent with that of those countries we consider our peers over time.

It concerns me greatly that within our prisons an alarming number of inmates have drug and alcohol problems and many have serious mental health issues. We also have far too many repeat offenders – 37 per cent of prisoners are back behind bars within two years of release, and over half of all inmates are re-convicted within two years of release.

The high-level of repeat offending suggests to me that there has been too little focus within our prison system on the issues which played a part in offenders being sent to jail, and too little emphasis on rehabilitation.

So where do we go from here?

Clearly there are longer-term solutions to high imprisonment rates. Over time, I believe our country will see the beneficial impact of our greatly reduced unemployment rates, of more support for families, and of the wide range of early intervention programmes already being put in place.

No doubt more can be done on all these scores, but much is already being done to give all our people a better start in life and more opportunity to fulfil their potential.

The focus of today's announcements is on what we can do in the shorter term to arrest rising prison numbers and to get better outcomes for society as a whole from our criminal justice system.

Let me be clear. Serious and dangerous offenders will remain in prison. That is the only acceptable option for those offenders.

But we must consider other options for dealing with the lower level offenders who are now serving prison terms and, in too many cases, continuing to re-offend after release.

There appears to have been in recent years a form of sentencing creep which has delivered not only the longer sentences for the most serious offenders which the Government had targeted, but longer sentences across the board - which was not our aim.

That is why we need to improve sentencing processes, introduce new and more effective ways for offenders to serve their sentences, and address the underlying drug, alcohol, and other problems which blight our prison population.

In February this year, the Government asked the Law Commission to consider whether improvements could be made to New Zealand's sentencing and parole arrangements.

We wanted to know if there were better ways to provide guidance on sentences and whether parole should be reformed in line with that.

As a result of the Law Commission's work, which Sir Geoffrey will say more about shortly, we propose changes to New Zealand's sentencing and parole system.

The objective is to get more consistency, transparency, and best practice in how offenders are sentenced.

At the moment there are two ways of providing guidance on sentencing levels – Parliament can amend maximum penalties, and the Court of Appeal can issue guideline judgments, although these generally relate to serious offending.

The reality is that there is considerable variation in sentencing for like crimes across the country. That does not deliver justice or fairness. We need to aim for best practice and greater consistency in sentencing.

Thus the Government is adopting a recommendation by the Law Commission to establish a Sentencing Council. The Council's role will be to draft sentencing guidelines to help judges determine the appropriate sentences for the range of crimes, including those at the lower end of offending.

The guidelines will address issues such as the type and length of sentence and could be given on a whole range of sentencing and parole matters.

I am confident that establishing the Sentencing Council will make the system more transparent and will result in best practice through more consistent sentencing.

As well, the Law Commission has also reviewed the role of parole in our justice system.

It has proposed changes to the way parole is used, which I believe will increase the public's confidence in our justice system.

The new approach to sentencing and parole aims to achieve a greater level of truth in sentencing – that is, the time served will have a much stronger relationship to the period of sentence handed down.

Prisoners would be required to serve at least two-thirds of their sentences before being eligible for parole.

At the moment, prisoners are eligible for parole when they have served one-third of their sentence.

The new approach is likely to increase the proportion of the sentence served by prisoners from an average of 62 per cent of their sentence to an average of 80 per cent of their sentence.

This change will increase public confidence that the sentence given will be substantially served. As Sir Geoffrey will outline, this will mean that, on average, the length of sentence handed down, will need to reduce by around 25 per cent in order to avoid a blow out in prison numbers.

The changes proposed will provide more certainty for the Department of Corrections as it works to manage prison numbers, thus relieving pressure on our prison system.

A second critical part of this new approach is change to the sentencing structure to ensure a better range of sentencing options is available.

In this new sentencing structure, home detention will be established as a sentence in its own right, and a new tier of community-based sentences will be introduced.

At present, home detention is a community-based order, which enables an offender to serve part of their prison sentence in an approved place of residence, under electronic monitoring and close supervision by a probation officer.

The new proposal is to establish home detention as a separate sentence for lower-risk offenders.

The Minister of Justice will provide more detail shortly about how this will work. The key point to underline is that home detention is a safe and effective alternative to prison for lower-risk offenders.

The evidence is that those who are currently placed in home detention are less likely to re-offend, less likely to be re-convicted, and less likely to be re-imprisoned.

These are highly desirable outcomes – and they come with the added bonus of being cost effective. The annual cost of having a person on home detention comes at under 40 per cent of the cost of incarcerating a minimum-security prisoner.

Thus by using home detention more, we are not only more likely to break the cycle of offending, but also we will reduce the load on the prison system.

Home detention is an effective way of punishing lower-risk offenders and reducing re-offending. Over time, through greater use of home detention we can keep downward pressure on the crime rate and increase community safety.

Increased use of home detention is not the only change we propose to the sentencing structure.

There is agreement that we need a wider range of community-based sentences at judges' disposal so that sentences can better meet the circumstances of each defendant, while also maintaining community safety which must be paramount.

Community Work and Supervision are the current community-based sentences. Community Work is a reparative sentence aimed at compensating the community. Supervision is a rehabilitative and re-integrative sentence for offenders at risk of re-offending and for whom supervision and monitoring would be likely to reduce that risk.

The Government proposes to introduce a new tier of community sentences which will sit in the sentencing hierarchy above Community Work and Supervision.

First, there will be a sentence of Electronically-Monitored Curfew. This sentence will be suitable for less serious offenders whose offending has a specific pattern, or tends to occur at particular times.

Second, there will be a sentence of Intensive Supervision. This sentence would include a larger and more complex set of special conditions than is currently available under the supervision sentence.

By introducing home detention as a new sentence in its own right, and by adding the other two new sentences I have just outlined, there will be more options for judges when sentencing.

Having more sentencing choices other than short terms of imprisonment available to judges to use, should, on the basis of the available evidence, lead to lower rates of re-offending and re-conviction.

By establishing these sentences within a clear hierarchy everyone can be clear about the relationship between community-based sentences in terms of their severity.

Taken together, the combination of the Sentencing Council, the changes to parole which will lead to a greater proportion of sentences actually being served, the establishment of home detention as a sentence in its own right, and the new hierarchy of community sentences should increase public confidence in our criminal justice system.

These changes over time are aimed at decreasing re-offending rates and lowering New Zealand's unacceptably high rate of imprisonment.

Not only do we need to be smarter about the types of sentences available to judges, we also need to address a key underlying cause of offending, drug and alcohol abuse.

Between fifty and sixty per cent of offenders are affected by alcohol and/or other drugs at the time of their offending. Effective and timely treatment can reduce re-offending rates and imprisonment. Unfortunately there has been not enough such treatment available.

The Government has decided to fund two new drug and alcohol treatment units, one next year and the other in 2008. This will bring the number of drug and alcohol units in our prisons to six.

Given the strong correlation between drug and alcohol abuse and offending these extra resources should have a positive impact on offending over time.

Two further general purpose special treatment units will also be established. They will provide intensive rehabilitation programmes for an additional 100 high-risk prisoners.

The Minister of Corrections will provide more detail about these initiatives a little later.

As well, the Department of Corrections already has underway proposals to expand employment programmes to cover sixty per cent of all prisoners. This represents a 50 per cent increase in the proportion of prisoners participating in those programmes. The government considers this vital in cutting down recidivism.

Today I have given you an overview of the key changes we are making to improve our criminal justice system.

The rate of imprisonment has been growing fast, and the rate of recidivism is high. The criminal justice system cannot go on as it is.

These are hard issues to tackle, and we are under no illusion about the scale of the challenge.

The proposals the Government has agreed to are costed at $207 million over the next four years in operating expenditure. That includes funding for a national performance framework for restorative justice, for more community-based treatment programmes, extra District Court Judges, and prison staffing, as well as resourcing to kick start the changes I have announced today.

We believe the policies we are announcing today will make a difference for the better.

They are aimed at reducing re-offending and thereby getting the best results from the criminal justice system.

Coupled with the long-term effects of high rates of employment, more support for families, and the more effective early intervention programmes in place, we believe we can make our communities safer for all our families.

ENDS

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