For 15 years justice advocate Roger Brooking has been campaigning for prison reform with an increasing sense of despair. Now, for the first time, he sees reasons to be hopeful.
The Labour government is in a tricky situation with regard to justice reform. Justice Minister Andrew Little and Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis want to reduce the prison population by 30 percent. The fly in the ointment is NZ First, the coalition partner which shot down Little's recent proposal to repeal the three strikes law.
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Given NZ First's uncompromising stance on law and order, Labour is unlikely to pass any legislative proposals related to crime and punishment in this parliamentary term. But Kelvin Davis and Corrections have come up with a cunning plan to start reforming our prison system anyway.
Instead of repealing the three strikes law or the Bail Amendment Act, Davis has persuaded management in the department to alleviate obstacles in the way offenders are processed in prison. Corrections deputy national commissioner Leigh Marsh was put in charge of the project and has come up with two main strategies.
Bail Support Service
One is to assist the growing number of defendants on remand apply for bail in the community instead of spending months in prison waiting for their case to come up.
Since the Bail Amendment Act was passed in 2013 making it more difficult for defendants to get bail, offenders are now far more likely to be remanded in prison. However, they may be eligible to apply for electronically monitored bail (known as ebail); the defendant has to come up with a suitable address, and whoever lives there (usually family), has to give their permission.
To apply, the offender has to write to the people in the house and ask if they can stay there on ebail. They may not know the exact address, another obstacle. Even if they do, whomever they write to might not bother to reply. If they say no, the prisoner has to come up with someone else to write to. Of course, all this assumes the prisoner can read and write – when the reality is that 70 percent of those in prison struggle with basic literacy. In other words, this is a slow, frustrating procedure and most of those on remand just give up and wait till their day in court.
Now Corrections has put a rocket under remand by creating a bail support service. Bail officers visit the prisoner the day after they are remanded in prison to assist with the paperwork, and contact the appropriate support people. They also liase with defence counsel and try to get the defendant's bail application before a judge within a week. This has cut dramatically the amount of time that prisoners spend on remand.
Corrections' other new strategy is to help sentenced prisoners become 'parole ready'. The background to this is that the Parole Board will not generally release any prisoner until they have completed a criminogenic rehabilitation programme. Often the board insists that prisoners must do two rehab programmes before they are considered ready for release.
The problem was that until Kelvin Davis got involved, Corrections made little effort to put prisoners into programmes until they were near the end of their sentence. That meant most prisoners would end up serving almost their entire sentence, even though they became eligible for parole after completing one third.
By failing to put prisoners into programmes early on in their sentence, Corrections was actively preventing them from being paroled – including low to medium risk prisoners, who make up the bulk of the prison population.
Mr Marsh says that Corrections is now making more of an effort to place prisoners into programmes before their first parole hearing – something they have never done before. As a result, in the last 12 months approximately 5 percent more prisoners have been released on parole.
These changes have made a significant difference. According to Newsroom: "The population peaked in March at 10,820 and on 3 October had dropped to 10,035 – a 7.3 percent fall."
Two days later Stuff reported: "The prison population has dipped below 10,000 for the first time in more than two years".
Given that prison numbers have been rising steadily for over 50 years, it is too early to tell whether this is just a temporary blip or part of a new trend. One thing is clear. This new approach involves a great deal more respect for offenders' humanity and a much greater commitment to due process. Instead of chucking offenders into prison to take their chances with an unresponsive system riddled with insurmountable obstacles, now Corrections is actively trying to help offenders get out and stay out.
I have to say, that's a novel idea – one that has never been tried before in New Zealand.
But wait, there's more. It costs $110,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Since there are already 800 less prisoners, that's a potential saving of $88 million in one year. If these initiatives had been introduced 20 years ago, the savings would have been $1.7 billion. If these initiatives continue to work and eventually cut the prison population by Labour's goal of 3,000, that would save $330 million a year. Over the next 20 years, we would save $6.6 billion.
Even Blackadder would agree – this is a very cunning plan. It's called common sense.
Roger Brooking blogs at brookingblog.com