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Reoffending rates down, while prison numbers increase

Reported crime and reoffending rates down, while prison numbers increase

Rethinking Crime and Punishment is calling for a review into why the imprisonment levels have not shifted in the wake of significant reductions in recorded crime and reoffending.

Spokesperson Kim Workman says that a review is needed into why prison numbers have hovered around 8,600 for about three years. “While the Minister of Corrections reported that there has been a 17.4 percent reduction in reported crime over the last three years, and a 12.6% reduction in reoffending since June 2011, she did not mention that the prison levels have gone up from 8,351 in January to around 8,554 last week, even though there has been a reduction in the number of people sent to prison. That figure is about 11% higher than it was in 2006/07, when the average prisoner population was 7,734 people.

There are a number of contributing factors.

First, The numbers of sentences in excess of 2 years, and therefore subject to the Parole system, rose from 1200 receptions per year in 2005 to 2000 per year in 2009.

Second, the Parole Board has taken an increasingly conservative stance, with prisoners spending longer in prison. In 2000, prisoners spent an average of 50% of their sentence in prison. By 2013, they were serving 75% of their time in prison. About 23% of those eligible for parole are not released until or near the Sentence Expiry Date.

Third, a risk-averse culture now permeates the prison system. Prisoners are more likely to be described in official reports and psychological assessments as a risk to public safety, and the Parole Board rarely questions that judgement, or seeks an independent assessment. Departmental psychologists spend a disproportionate amount of their time on risk assessment, and less time providing clinical support. As a result, prisoners are more likely to treat psychologists with fear and suspicion, rather than as agents of support ; they know that the psychologist’s interpretation of their responses to questions will influence their suitability for release.

Fourth, prisoners appearing before the Parole Board increasingly find themselves in a ‘Catch 22’ situation. The Parole Board often recommends their release be conditional on completion of a rehabilitation programme or taking steps toward reintegration, for example, by having home leave or making family contact. When the department fails to provide the programme, or deliberately withholds reintegration opportunities, the prisoner is faced with the prospect of serving another year in prison, when they could well have been released if those conditions had been fulfilled. In the worst cases, it can amount to arbitrary detention.

The other emerging issue, is that prisoner reintegration plans presented to the Board, do not always meet the standards required for the Board to approve release. There needs to be a different approach, with more proactive engagement from community organisations and whanau ora providers, who have access both to prisoners and to the Parole Board.
There is clearly a bottle neck at the interface between the department and the Parole Board. An independent review of the systemic and procedural impediments, could well result in a reduction in imprisonment levels.


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