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Seek Alternatives to Prison say Visiting Experts

Seek Alternatives to Prison say Visiting British Experts

Visiting British experts on prisons, Baroness Vivian Stern and Professor Andrew Coyle, are astounded at the high rate of imprisonment in New Zealand and urge us to consider alternatives.

The couple, both associated with the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, have commented following their visit to New Zealand last month.

At 197 per 100,000 New Zealanders, our country's incarceration rate is almost twice that of most western European countries and fast approaching that of Libya, Azerbyjan and Brazil. France has one of the lowest rates in western Europe, of 90 per 100,000, and Finland is an even better model with a rate of 70 per 100,000. The United Kingdom's rate is 140, per 100,000.

For a beautiful, peaceful country like New Zealand, such a high rate is ridiculous, according to Baroness Stern. "This is a small country with a lot going for it, and I would have thought that ideas of equality and justice would have been stronger in the face of pressure to lock up New Zealanders."

In contrast, the International Crime and Victimization Survey (supported by the Ministry of Justice in Netherlands) puts New Zealand at the top of all 14 other western industrialized countries for providing support to victims of crime.

The couple argue that too many people, who are usually victims themselves, are becoming criminalized when they might more sensibly be treated outside the prison walls for mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems, and minor but persistent anti-social behaviour.

Alongside a strategic lobby group called Rethinking Crime and Punishment in this country, they argue that putting more people in prison does not actually make the community safer. Putting people in prison, especially minor offenders, actually increases the likelihood of further criminal activity after their release.

Looking at data relating to prisoners released from jails in New Zealand between March 2000 and March 2006, more than half are likely to commit at least one new crime within two years of their release. This of course, results in more victims of crime.

An overall increase in the prison population of 15.6% over the next seven years is predicted, and hence the need for four new jails at a cost of over $600 million. Between 2006 and 2007, the operating costs of New Zealand prisons increased by 18 percent from $660 million to $778 million.

Said Kim Workman, Project Leader for the Rethinking Crime and Punishment project, says "one of the issues which Professor Coyle and Baroness Stern remind us of, and which we cannot ignore, is that the social problems in the communities from which the criminal behaviour arose in the first place, almost always remain on their return. And hence the couple suggest that broader and longer term strategies are also considered."

As Professor Coyle said, "The time is right for reform. Despite best efforts, a focusing of significant resources on reducing re-offending by individuals can do little to increase public safety and well-being. A wider approach is required."

ends

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