The ex-National MP who wants to cut NZ prison numbers in half

A former National MP believes New Zealand's prison population could be halved without putting law-abiding Kiwis in danger.

Chester Borrows, a former police officer, lawyer and Minister of Courts, is heading an advisory group tasked with helping to reform a justice system he says in many aspects, isn't working.

He told The AM Show on Monday most politicians know that restorative justice is the key to reducing crime, but are happy to talk tough on sentencing because it gets them votes.

"The fact is law and order is one of the big four people vote on alongside health, education and the economy. So what you find is someone who wants to stay in power or someone who wants to get into power... will run over and push that button."

Chester Borrows.
Chester Borrows. Photo credit: The AM Show

And it's politics he fears will get in the way of real reform.

"The thing that could kill it is the politics around it. [The advisory group] is thankfully about putting up evidence-based solutions. Now if the politicians want to kill it with rhetoric, over to them. But let's shift the blame to them."

Mr Borrows' aim to cut prison numbers by half goes even further than Justice Minister Andrew Little's target of a third. Presently there are about 10,600 people behind bars - a record.

"There's a chunk of them there... who are there for administrative crimes," says Mr Borrows.

"They're there because they did something the court told them not to do, or they didn't pay a fine or they didn't do their community work."

Many of those are young people who have their lives ahead of them, but the system is letting them down.

"You send them to a criminal university and give them a gang affiliation," he says, adding that it's even worse for those who are remanded in custody before they get to face a judge.

"When they finally get to court they are then released on time served, so they go out with no rehabilitation, no therapy, no one watching them, not on parole - just pissed off and poor, and they're going to commit more crime."

This is why, in his view, many young people who fall into a life of crime are just as much victims as those they offend against.

"If you get to know these people, they've all been offended against. Why the hell do you think people offend in this abhorrent way? Because it's a learned behaviour."

'Bit of an oddball'

Mr Borrows acknowledges it's an unexpected view to have as a former National Party MP. He says even as a cop, his views sometimes clashed with those of his peers.

"They thought I was a bit of an oddball."

But the evidence doesn't lie.

"Restorative justice works better than anything else, and yet if you promote it, you're seen as being soft on crime."

Andrew Little with the working group.
Andrew Little with the working group. Photo credit: Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub.

National's stance on the advisory group Mr Borrows leads is that it's a PR exercise.

"It looks like the Government is just going to make it easier for criminals to get out of prison and harder for them to get there in the first place,"  the justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell said earlier this month.

The Opposition opposes

Leader Simon Bridges echoed that perspective when he appeared on The AM Show Monday morning, ahead of Mr Borrows.

"Chester's a top guy, but he knows and I know we've always disagreed on these things, right back to our days on the justice select committee when I first came to Parliament. He has a certain perspective. I have always held a perspective actually you've got to be tough on crime and the causes of crime."

In Mr Bridges' view, it's "okay" to have a record-high prison population "in terms of New Zealand being safer because of that".

He says every single one of those 10,600 prisoners deserves to be there.

"Remember this: you do not go to jail for the theft of a Moro bar. You don't go to jail for smoking a joint... You go there for serious violence, rapes and serious sexual offences and Class A commercial drug dealing. That's about it."

That's not entirely true. Figures released in January 2017 showed on average, about 23 people a year are jailed or sentenced to home detention for marijuana use alone. And jail sentences are regularly doled out to people who grow or sell it, even though it's only a Class C drug.

Simon Bridges on The AM Show.
Simon Bridges on The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show

Mr Bridges, a former Crown prosecutor, says most Kiwis agree with him though.

"We rehabilitate them when they're there... You've got to try hard [to rehabilitate], but you've got to be tough because deterrence does work."

'Do you care enough to do something about it?'

Mr Borrows says he's not sure if Mr Bridges really believes what he's saying, but that it's "what he sees as his role at the moment".

He hopes politics doesn't get in the way of real reform - whether from National or coalition partner New Zealand First, which isn't as liberal on justice issues as Labour or support partner, the Greens.

"Let's move down that track," says Mr Borrows. "You've got a system that doesn't work at the moment - do you care enough to do something about it, or do you just want someone to blame?"

A two-day summit will be held in August, and the advisory group is due to report back to Mr Little in early 2019.