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It's 'About Time' - Matt Robson Speech

Hon Matt Robson Speech Notes

Speech to Grey Power Motueka

22 August 2001, 2pm


Some people might think it's strange: Here I am at a Grey Power meeting planning to talk about problem five year olds!

Of course it isn't strange. You recognise, as do many other New Zealanders that if we do nothing today, kids in trouble will grow up into the hard core criminals of tomorrow.

I'm travelling around New Zealand with this message: that early intervention works best, costs less.

When I talk to people at public meetings I compare these two statistics that I think will particularly interest you here tonight.

The average cost of imprisonment for each inmate per year is $52,738.

NZ Superannuation (net) for a married couple per year is $18,763

Does that make any sense to you? It seems like a tragic waste of money to me.

Worse still, this expense has done little to lower the crime rate and make people feel safe in their homes.

Crime statistics speak for themselves. Over 90% of prison inmates under 20 are re-convicted within four years of release.

By the year 2013 the prison muster is predicted to grow by 46%.

This is what will happen if we do nothing. I have no intention of doing nothing.


I'm currently trying to build three regional prisons around New Zealand.

There is always strong local opposition wherever I announce the site for a new prison.

No one wants a prison near to where they live. I understand that.

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But in the short term, we must have safe and secure facilities to keep the public safe. And I have no intention of building dungeons like Mt Eden, or the old Dunedin prison.

In fact I'm closing Dunedin prison, and am working towards the eventual closure of Mt Eden.


When offenders get locked up, it is often because they have done something to hurt someone else.

So in the long term, if we want to make the public safe, then far more attention has to go into preventing offending before it happens.

We have preventive detention for offenders who are dangerous and who cannot be reformed, and the Government is introducing a new Sentencing and Parole Bill which will ensure that dangerous offenders are not automatically eligible for early release.

They are the “terrible few’ responsible for grisly crimes, and they can be distinguished from the majority in our prisons, the “sad many’ who drive while disqualified, or steal, or take drugs.

Twenty-nine per cent of offenders are in prison for property offences

Twenty-two per cent for traffic offences

And twenty per cent for other offences including drugs.

I’m not saying that these offenders shouldn’t be in prison.

But what we do with them while they’re inside will make the difference between a crime rate that goes up or down.

My new prisons will be regionally based because research shows that if we can keep offenders close to their families and their communities, they are less likely to re-offend after release.

They will target each offender and their reasons for offending. It'll be tough, but it will be effective.


I recently released a major report called About Time.

It found that locking offenders up for longer, or letting them out earlier, doesn't make much difference to the crime rate.

For example, Finland cut the number of crimes punishable by imprisonment.

The prison population fell and the crime rate didn’t change.

Some states of the US went the other way and put offenders away for much longer terms.

The prison population began growing enormously and the crime rate didn’t change.

The most effective way to keep the public safe is to intervene before people start out on a life of crime and to stop them from re-offending.

Young people who are likely to become tomorrow’s hard core offenders can now be identified with increasing certainty - as newborns, as school entrants, as young offenders and as early adult offenders.

The highest risk individuals are born to mothers who are:

- Young;

- Have little education;

- From a disadvantaged family where there was little care or attention;

- Dependent on alcohol or drugs;

- Socially isolated;

- And, have a number of male partners.

It has to be stressed that this background doesn’t condemn a child to adult offending, nor excuse it.

There are plenty of New Zealanders who overcome adversity in the early years and go on to rich and happy lives.

But each of the main risk factors increases the probability of anti-social behaviour by four to ten times.

If all of these factors appear together, the risk increases many hundreds of times.

So the first recommendation in About Time is to reduce the number of highest risk births.

It recommends working with young women and young men who fit the profile and who are in the social welfare and justice systems.

Teaching them about contraception and avoiding exploitation, and teaching them about the advantages of delaying child bearing until they are settled, mature and suitable support is available.

The cost for each intervention is about $500.

The cost of offending is so great, and the intervention so effective, that for every dollar spent, there is a return to New Zealand of fifty dollars.

We need to back that up with more support for high-risk new mothers, in what I call the “James Whakaruru’ situation.

A child born into that tragic situation who had survived would have been at very high risk of teenage and adult offending.

Programmes such as Family Start cost about $3000 a time, and ultimately save the taxpayer twenty-five dollars in future offending for every dollar spent.

The earlier you intervene, the more effective the result.

And then we can move to children as they enter school.

Teachers have long been able to identify many of the school entrants that they believe will end up as adult offenders, such as the hypothetical five-year-old with the angelic face that Ces Lashlie spoke about recently.

An intervention for a five year old who is aggressive and defiant is estimated to cost about $5000 per case with a success rate of seventy per cent.

The same behaviour at the age of twenty-five years costs $20,000 and has a success rate of only twenty per cent.

Earliest possible intervention works best and costs less.

Children who are at risk of progressing to serious adult offending get easier to identify between the ages of ten and fifteen.

The single most powerful indicator of a trajectory to serious adult offending is early repeat offending as a child.

The obvious risk factors include failure at school, substance abuse, deviant friends and a family that has problems - poor supervision, criminal parents and child abuse.

The remedies that work are fairly simple:

- Re-entry to school, with some incentive for doing well;

- Better parenting

- A complete ban on alcohol and drug use

- New social activities and friends.

Interventions with these kids cost about $7000 each.

If one in four of them would move on to a lifetime of offending without the intervention, and one in three interventions actually works, then we save about $36 in future offending for every dollar we spend.

Once children become teenagers the outlook for reforming them under our current system is not good.

More than half of the teenagers who enter the adult justice system are re-convicted within one year of ending their sentence.

About eighty or ninety per cent are re-convicted within five years.

We have to do better than that.

Dangerous teenage offenders who commit violent and sexual offences will still need to go to prison.

But for others About Time suggests intensive rehabilitation in Day Reporting Centres designed to teach some life skills and place the teens in jobs;

Attendance would be compulsory five days a week for six months, and might be accompanied by night curfews and electronic monitoring.

The units are significantly cheaper to run than prisons, and likely to be far more effective in preventing re-offending.

Some non-violent young offenders are better treated and cured outside of the toxic mix that is inside our prisons.

If we just write teenagers off when they first enter the adult justice system, then in most cases we are accepting that a lifetime of crime will result.

That also means accepting that they will spend a lifetime creating victims of their offending.


Politicians are always tempted to pretend they can offer quick fixes to serious problems.

The preventive measures I have outlined here are not quick fixes, but they are effective.

I'm not dewy-eyed about the potential results.

If we do everything I have recommended, we will reduce imprisonable offending by around seventeen per cent a year, eventually.

Some criminals cannot and will not change.

We will keep the public safe from their offending through the tough new Sentencing and Parole Acts.

That approach also needs to be complemented by doing what we can to stop offenders from being created in the first place.

The approach I want to see boils down to keeping the public safe by turning people away from a life of crime and reducing re-offending.

Early intervention - costs less, works best. It just makes sense.

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