Prisons: 'moral and fiscal failure'?

It takes political courage to contradict the prevailing nostrums of the day, and National's deputy prime minister and Finance Minister, Bill English, is to be commended for doing just this.

Opening a Families Commission's 50 Key Thinkers forum on May 11, Mr English referred to prisons as a "moral and fiscal failure". In so doing he burst the hot-air cloud of rhetoric and emotion that so often envelops discussions of crime and punishment in this country - and which runs contrary to what much evidence and research reveals about it.

The subject arose again at the weekend with the Finance Minister's appearance on TV One's Q+A show.

Asked how his views related to the proposed construction of the new 1000-bed prison in Wiri, south Auckland, Mr English said the plans had been in the pipeline for some years and were part of "this Government's policy and public pressure for tougher sentences and a safer community". But, he added, he hoped it would be the last prison the Government built because "they're very, very expensive: $250,000 a bed [in capital costs] and $90,000 [per prisoner] to run it, and when we're tight for money, it would be good if we could have ... less young people coming into the ... pipeline where they start with a minor offence and end up with a 10-year sentence."

Mr English might have dispensed with the phrase "when we're tight for money" because if, for large numbers of those convicted of committing lesser crimes, prisons do not work - over time, considerable evidence shows, they make communities less safe rather than more - it is arguably irrelevant whether we are tight for money or not.

If the policies do not work, why would any government throw money hand over fist at them. Not unexpectedly, the usual suspects are now braying for Mr English's blood, with the Sensible Sentencing Trust saying he has "destroyed the good work done by [Police and Corrections Minister] Judith Collins, and [Justice Minister] Simon Power".

Family First chimed in with claims the Finance Minister is "incredibly naive".

But if this is the case, Mr English is in good company. In 2007, in his report to the Prime Minister on the criminal justice sector, former Ombudsman Mel Smith wrote: "I express my concern ... about how issues of crime and criminal justice have become highly politicised and often the subject of uninformed and superficial public and media comment ... As a consequence there is an absence of rational decision making based on any critical examination of the issues."

At that point expenditure on law and order was $2.7 billion; four years later it is $3.5 billion. In the United Kingdom in 2010, new Conservative Party Minister of Justice Kenneth Clarke criticised prevailing attitudes by saying, "simply banging up more and more people for longer makes some criminals worse without protecting the public.

"The consequence is that more and more offenders have been warehoused, sometimes in outdated facilities, and we spend vast amounts of public money on a growing prison estate and ever more prisoners".

There are, of course, people who commit terrible crimes and need to be locked away - forever if necessary. Nobody denies this, even if on the liberal side of the ledger some would hold out hope for rehabilitation and redemption.

But where the punitive, lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key, mindset has affected policy most is at the lower end of the scale, sending endless numbers of petty criminals to prison where, without the effective rehabilitative impetus of drug and alcohol counselling, of literacy teaching, of skills training, many simply graduate to more serious criminality - and perpetuate the problem.

Crime and justice is a complex matter. Prisons are necessary. But so is rigorous debate on how to achieve a pragmatic, evidence-based response to crime in society.

It has in the past been stymied by politicians on all sides of the spectrum who have been cowed in the face of perennial populism, the rhetoric of "getting tough on crime", and entered a kind of electoral auction over the issue.

To make progress in this vexed area, what is required is for the major parties to agree they will not surrender sensible, efficient and workable justice solutions to the simplistic cravings of the ballot box. With his refreshingly frank remarks, Mr English has shown the way forward.


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