The Nation Simon Shepherd interviews Ben Brooks
On Newshub Nation Simon Shepherd interviews Ben Brooks:
New Zealand incarcerates more people than almost any other country in the OECD. It costs our society as much as $12 billion per year. Ben Brooks has worked in justice, including Corrections, for 15 years. And he recently returned from Texas, where - as the 2019 Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow - he has been studying the State's success in keeping people out of prison. I asked him why he studied a state that still uses the death penalty?
Ben Brooks: Well, there’s two big reasons. Lots of people go to the Scandinavian countries, and they’ll come back with some great stuff, but if you think about the trajectory of our prison population, it’s just kept on going up. So there’s clearly something that’s not quite working in terms of taking stuff from them. So, Texas has a lot more similarities to New Zealand. It makes it a bit easier to bring back. Plus, I think the real challenge for us in New Zealand is trying to get some bipartisan support reform, and Texas has managed to do that by bringing together Democrats and Republicans to support the changes they’ve made.
Simon Shepherd: Okay. Well, let’s talk about that in a second. But what are the similarities there with Texas and our prison population?
Well, there’s a few things in terms of the general population. We try to bring those things back. So, it’s a much more diverse place than, for instance, the Scandinavian countries. Rapidly growing population, similar to New Zealand. Long history of tough-on-crime policies. So, lots of the things that we’ve got in place now, we’ve brought across from America, and particularly Texas. And they’ve had that recent drop in imprisonment rate that maybe makes it a bit easier to try and bring some of those lessons back.
And yet their crime rate, like ours, has been going down, and yet when they made this decision, their prison population was going up. Is that right?
Yes, that’s right.
Okay. So, what was the one intervention that they decided to do that has really managed to bring their prison population down?
Well, there’s really no single intervention that’s done it. And that’s probably going to be a similar story in New Zealand, if we manage to make it there. There’s no single thing that will do it. It’s lots of little things cumulatively over time. So, they started the process in 2007. Every couple of years, they come back and put in place some more reforms that cumulatively all add up to quite a substantial impact.
And how much of an impact have they had in terms of reducing those prison numbers?
So, it’s gone relatively flat, slightly declined. But, really, while that population’s been increasing really fast, it means the imprisonment rate’s gone down quite a lot.
Right. So their population’s been going up, but they’ve managed to keep it flat.
Yes. Unlike New Zealand, where our population’s been going up, and our imprisonment rate’s been going quite a bit faster.
And our crime rate’s been going down.
What is the essence of New Zealand’s problem, then?
Well, we’ve simply haven’t put in the effort to try and reduce the prison population. Too many people going to prison.
Too many people going to prison. What about the reoffending rates? Is that also a cause of concern here?
Well, I think reoffending rates is part of the picture, but trying to send people to prison and then address all their problems there is really hard. I think we need to do a lot more about actually stopping sending people to prison and trying to deal with their challenges in the community, which is a large part of what happened in Texas.
Okay, well, let’s go through that. So when police are called to, say, what they call a ‘nuisance crime’, like a disorderly, homelessness, minor drug crimes, what do they do there?
So, they do a few interesting things. And, obviously, it depends on particular issues. But, for instance, in Houston, they’ve got a rule that the police can’t take someone arrested for public drunkenness to prison. They have to take them to a recovery centre where they’re placed there, they recover, and they try to divert them into treatment, rather than sending them into the prison system to deal with just an alcohol problem.
Okay. Something else that you talk about in your research is therapeutic courts. Now, what are they, and do we have them here?
So, we’ve got three of them here. They’re things like a drug court. Texas has one called a sex trafficking court, basically around prostitution. Mental health, veterans courts, family violence courts, homelessness courts. Basically, courts designed to treat really intensively with some of those difficult issues.
Okay. And what happens in those courts, though? What happens to the offenders? They get convicted, but what happens after that?
So, before they get convicted, they have to kind of indicate that, yes, they want to engage with the programme. Those programmes are really intensive, wraparound. They’re based in the courts; they’re not in prisons. They work quite closely with judges, some intensive interventions. And if things are successful, then in New Zealand, at the sentencing point, that will be taken into account. In Texas, they’ll actually just say, ‘Yes, you’ve completed the programme. You’ve done all the things that we want you to do. We’re going to send you back into the community.’
Okay. And what happens to the decisions of those courts in particular?
So, decisions are still made by the judges.
Yeah, but are they on the prisoner’s record? Can I see them, in the public?
So, in New Zealand, yes, they’re available. But in Texas, what they tend to do is one of two things – either expunge the record, so it’s just gone as if it never happened; or they seal the record, so it’s still available to police but not available to the general public.
And that means that they have a greater chance of getting a job if they don’t have it available to the public.
Exactly. Lots of those things that we know from all the evidence are really helpful in terms of someone not committing any further offences – things like jobs, things like steady employment.
One of the things you mentioned before was the bipartisan support to get these reforms in place in Texas. How are we going to get that here? Because we seem to have two parties going in different directions.
Well, I think it’s too early to say that. If you think back to Bill English, he talked about prisons as a moral and fiscal failure. I think the National Party, there’s a real opportunity for them. And if they look to people in Texas, the republicans, they certainly embraced prisons, because they believed that prison reform was consistent with their values, and I think that could be the case here, but we’ll wait to see what happens.
We do have an election year coming up, so this issue can be politicised, and people are trying to differentiate themselves coming into election year. Is that a concern?
I mean, that’s always a challenge. But obviously, again, looking to Texas, with the Republicans, they didn’t feel like they could embrace prison reform and not win elections; they’ve been pretty successful. So there is an opportunity there, but I think we need to wait and see.
Okay. So, our government has brought in some reforms – $1.9 billion worth towards mental health, Maori pathways in prison and police discretion over, say, drug offences. What else should be going on?
Well, similarly to Texas, I suspect it’s going to be a lot of small things. So, if you look at, actually, the things that the government has done to impact on the prison population since they were elected – the 2017 forecast and the more recent one since the government’s been elected, right at the end of that, it’s had an impact of around 3100 prisoners. So they’ve done a lot of things that have had a relatively big impact, even though they’re all small individually, and I suspect there’s a lot more of those coming.
And are the decision makers here taking on board what you’ve discovered in Texas?
We’ve had some engagement. I’m certainly hoping that we can get a bit more.
Labour has a target of 30% decrease in prison population over 15 years. I mean, is that possible?
I think that’s absolutely possible. And if you think about the countries that we like to compare ourselves to, 30% reduction would get us to a level that’s similar to Australia. Fifty per cent reduction would get us a similar level to England. People talk about the crime rate often. If we got a 60% reduction – ¬ people talk about trying to match the crime rate ¬– then we’d be matching the crime rate’s decline that we’ve seen since the early- 1990s.
Okay. Ben Brooks, thank you very much for your time.
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