Gordon Campbell on Prisons

prisons: scoop image, lyndon hood
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Voting commonly plays out as an act of retribution, with the motivation to vote being either a desire to wreak vengeance on the incumbent, or to send a warning shot across the bow of their likely replacement. So, its hardly surprising that the law and order ‘debate’ tends to be the killing floor of the election campaign. Crime and retribution lie at the primal, Old Testament heart of the democratic process, and no politician has ever lost votes by promising to be too tough on criminals.

Even so it is a little odd this year that the Act Party should still be touting a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law and order policy nearly a decade after the rest of the world lost enthusiasm for it. Mainly because the ‘three strikes’ policy (a) doesn’t work and (b) is extremely expensive. A useful 2001 summary of California’s experience since the introduction of the “three strikes ‘ policy in 1994 had this to say:

Much of the criticism and backlash attacks “three strikes” laws as being an ill-advised policy, a quick fix solution to the dynamic problem of crime, a policy with no or at best modest deterrent effect, and lastly, a financial burden to the correctional community and taxpayers.

Only ten days ago, the New York Times editorialised on the havoc that the three strikes policy and tougher parole rules have wrought on the California justice system:

The mass imprisonment philosophy that has packed prisons and sent corrections costs through the roof around the country has hit especially hard in California, which has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate and a prison budget raging out of control.

Since its inception, the Act Party has long been the junk shop for old and recycled conservative ideas ( see: supply side economics, de-regulation, less government) that have been discarded by the rest of the civilised world. On law and order though, neither of the major parties are much better.

prisoners, sardines - scoop image, lyndon hood

Under a Labour government, we imprison our fellow citizens at a rate – 185 per 100,000 citizen- virtually unknown anywhere else in modern social democracies. Compare our rates to Australia (130) Ireland (76) England and Wales (155) Canada ( 108) or Germany and France ( both 91) Lock ‘em up has been the tendency here over successive Labour and National administrations, and Labour has been fully the match of the conservatives in promoting moves to outlaw gangs ( whatever the civil rights infringed in the process) and advocating the seizure of the profits of crime, without necessarily bothering about getting a conviction first.

National has promised to introduce private prisons in New Zealand. The international evidence that this is a good idea is flimsy. In fact, in January this year, the BBC reported that ten out of the eleven private prisons in the UK consistently fared worse on a table of performance comparisons than their public sector counterparts:

The Prison Service papers include an internal “league table”, which ranks all jails in England and Wales.It shows that most privately-managed prisons score badly on security and maintaining order and control.

Prison governors want the government to re-think private management of prisons. But the Prison Service says private and public sector jails cannot be compared.

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said the report would re-open the debate about private sector involvement in prisons, at a time when private companies were bidding to fund and operate a series of new jails. A national table, ranking performance in six categories, showed that 10 of the 11 privately-run prisons in England and Wales were in the bottom quarter.

Secondly, there is also evidence from the US that private prisons have worse rates of recidivism than public prisons, as this summary from the US National Crime Prevention Council indicates:

With the number of people being incarcerated on the rise, the private sector stepped in to help alleviate the burden by building private prisons. Given that Americans typically subscribe to the idea that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector, the foundation of this study was that the private sector would be able to provide better incarceration services than state governments.

Key Findings:
• There was a higher rate of recidivism among inmates released from private prisons (32.8%) than from state prisons (29.8%).
• When controlling for gender, men in private prisons were more likely to recidivate (35.1%) than state prisoners (30.1%) and women in private prisons were less likely to recidivate (21.2%) than those in state prisons (26.8%)…. The finding that inmates released from private prison in Oklahoma. recidivated at a higher rate than their state prison counterparts—despite the greater likelihood of being released on probation—argues for greater attention to re-entry planning.

Cost is another factor. National’s law and order policy will cost a great deal, both in upfront and recurring expenditure. The change to a tougher parole system will require, as National concedes, the building of a new prison at a cost of $315 million, with further operating costs of $43 million a year. John Key has provided this interesting rationale for the policy:

““Violent crime increased by 11% in just the past year and by 47% since Labour came to office in 1999.

“That is not good enough. It’s not good enough that many people don’t feel safe on their streets, let alone in their homes….Under National’s policy, people who commit a violent offence that earns them a prison sentence of five years or more – regardless of whether or not they serve the full term – will not be eligible for parole if they commit a subsequent violent offence that receives a sentence of five years or more.

“That five-year threshold will include crimes such as attempted murder, kidnapping, sexual violation and attempted sexual violation, indecent assault, aggravated robbery and burglary, grievous assault, and some serious assaults

“This policy will also apply to those who commit murder if they have previously been sentenced to five years or more for a serious violent offence. They will serve their full life sentence inside prison.

“National estimates this policy could add up to a further 572 offenders to the prison population by 2011, meaning we may need to build a new prison at an additional cost of about $315 million, which will incur operating costs of $43 million a year…. National is also promising to force prisoners into work schemes and scrap parole if they refuse.

The trouble is, these premises – promoted by politicians and a sensationalist media alike – are highly dubious. That 11% rise in violent crime in the year to June 2008 for instance was not due to a rise in crime in public places, or in crime committed by strangers.

In early October, assistant Police commissioner Grant Nicholls told RNZ’s Checkpoint programme that the rise of 5,878 in violent incidents in the year 07/08 was ‘totally’ due to the increase of 5,881 in domestic violence incidents, which was itself due to a rise in reported incidents that could be attributed to the highly successful “Its Not OK” television campaign. The level of crime in public places is effectively flatlining – with even the rise in youth crime, Nicholls maintained, being due to incidents involving youth in domestic altercations. Moreover, as Russell Brown has already pointed out, National’s proposed abolition of parole for murderers already convicted of violent offences would affect very few of them – only ten of the 144 convicted since 2002 would fall into that category.

There will be additional burdens on the taxpayer for the law and order policies on offer. National’s policy to boost the numbers of those learning work based skills by 1,000 by 2011, will cost an extra $7 million. While welcome, this is actually a fairly meagre investment – in that it will boost the numbers of prisoners in skills based learning to only 3,500 in three years time, within a prison population already standing at 7.887. This projected boost in industry skills is in line with National’s pledged to increase the use of prison labour within the wider economy.

Besides the moral question of the expansion of prisoner slave labour – the prisoners will receive only a fraction of the minimum wage for their work – there is a risk of undermining the private sector by doing so. Especially at a time when jobs and conditions in New Zealand firms are already under threat from the domestic recession and the global financial crisis. This will not happen, Key maintains, since Corrections will still have to tender for the available contracts ‘at market rates’ – but at the very least, the influx of prison labour will serve to restrain those ‘market rates’ for wages and conditions from rising for ordinary New Zeal;and workers.

In sum, while rhetoric of building more prisons and tightening up on parole conditions may be politically popular, it is almost certainly unsustainable – both socially and economically. Currently, it costs around $76,000 per prisoner annually in New Zealand, a rate that is not luxurious. ( We tend to spend less per prisoner than most comparable countries.)

Nothing from either major party in this election campaign will shift New Zealand from its path of high imprisonment and restricted access to parole. The need for a change in perspective in obvious. Otherwise, New Zealand will be condemned to repeat the same American mistakes in prisons policy, as it has in health reform. As the New York Times concluded in the editorial cited above:

State lawmakers, some of whom are fearful of being seen as soft on crime, have failed to make perfectly reasonable sentencing modifications and other changes that the prisons desperately need. Unless they muster some courage soon, Californians [and New Zealanders] will find themselves swamped by prison costs, and unable to afford just about anything else