Cross-Examination: New Zealand's Rapidly Increasing Prison Population

By Olivia Folu

June 2017 was the deadline set for the Government’s goal of reducing reoffending by 25%. However, as of May 2017, the reoffending rates had only decreased by 4.5%[1]. Despite the government’s goal, the prison population increased by 1454 between 2014 and 2016 alone. With the prison population, as of December 2016 at 9,914[2], this will likely be the year that the prison population will hit a record high of 10,000 prisoners. This should be an issue that New Zealanders care about, as imprisonment is our system’s most severe form of punishment. Imprisonment takes away many offenders’ basic rights such as freedom, privacy and voting. How we choose to deal with and treat people who break the law will have long term mental and physical effects on offenders, their families and our communities.Over the past decade crime rates have been decreasing and yet prison populations continue to boom. In the 2017 report 'Beyond the Prison Gate' by Salvation Army, it concluded that the rise in prison numbers was dependent on how the justice system has dealt with crime in the past 10 years, rather than the seriousness of crime dealt with. It also comments on how the decisions and pressures leading to these choices were inherently political. This is particularly important as this prison growth has continued to disproportionately and severely affecting minority groups, particularly young Maori.[3]

What is causing our appalling prison rates?

New Zealand has traditionally had a culture of ‘penal populism’. This is especially evident in the lead up to an election or when violent crimes have been extensively covered by the media. It becomes a competition between political parties regarding who can be tougher on crime.Former Ombudsman Mel Smith expressed concern about how "the issues of crime and criminal justice have become highly politicised and often the subject of uninformed and superficial public and media comment. There has been, and continues to be, a lack of constructive and clear headed public debate about the issues. As a consequence, there is an absence of rational decision making based on any critical examination of the issues. This tends to act as an impediment to constructive change.”[4]Ministry of Justice and Department of Corrections have indicated that it is legislation and policies such as the Bail Amendment Act 2013, the Parole Act and three strikes regime, rather than crime rates, that have contributed significantly to prison numbers over the past 15 years through longer sentences and tougher bail conditions.[5] In Beyond the Prison gate report, it states that the Bail Amendment Act 2013 continues to cause the number of offenders on remand to increase. Minster Collins stated that this was in fulfilment of National’s election promise to “deliver on tougher bail laws” and to “make NZ safer and protect the public”.[6]In a Canadian study, research showed that prison had “little if any deterrent effect on future offending by released inmates”. Longer prison sentences might actually increase the risk of reoffending as it provides a criminal learning environment, fails to address the underlying causes of offending and creates further stigma.[7] The criminal justice system has a large deterrent effect but imprisonment itself does not contribute much and is not necessarily the most efficient way to ensure public safety.The Sentencing Act 2002 states some of the purposes of sentencing: holding the offender accountable and responsible to the victim and the community, to provide for reparation and victim’s interests, to protect the community and rehabilitation and reintegration.[8] These purposes must be considered when a judge decides whether imprisonment is appropriate or alternatives like reparation and community work. It was found in a report by JustSpeak that less restrictive community-based options were being used far less than prison sentences.[9] Reasons for this considered by the report were: the assumption by judges that imprisonment can solve all the purposes set out in the Sentencing Act 2002, and the need to treat like cases alike, which can result in high sentences being imposed regardless of whether it is the best option or satisfies the purposes of sentence. The report recommended that these alternative community based sentences would become more available if judges took a more individual approach to determining whether prison was the best option to achieve the purposes of sentencing.[10] The Ministry of Justice shows that “proportion of offenders sentenced to home detention and who are reconvicted in the next 12 months is less than half that of those offenders who are released from a short-term prison sentence”[11].To create programmes that successfully reduce reoffending, the government must look beyond the emotional public call to punish, and address the numerous barriers that prevent offenders from reintegrating back into society.In 2014, Corrections estimated that around 650 prisoners had unmet housing on release.[12] Offenders don’t qualify for state housing and often face stigma when applying for private rentals. In an Australian study, it was found that unstable accommodation was statistically significant in re-incarceration rates. Of those who had moved twice or more, 59 per cent were re-incarcerated. Of those who had not moved or only moved once, 22 per cent were re-incarcerated at nine months.Offenders with stable employment are significantly less likely to be rearrested and re-incarcerated. However, things like a lack of work experience, addictions, and mental health issues can create barriers to offenders searching for employment. Beyond this there is the stigma that ex-prisoners face in the community, a lack of available jobs and employer practices that automatically exclude anyone with a criminal history.89% of prisoners had had a lifetime prevalence of substance abuse and 52% of prisoners were found to have lifetime psychotic, mood or anxiety disorders, and 90% of those with major mental disorders also had a substance abuse disorder. [13] Prison as an environment can exacerbate these illnesses through a negative social environment, separation from family etc. This vulnerability can be suddenly compounded by the upheaval of leaving the prison environment and re-entering the community.

What can be done?

Most offenders can not, and should not, be locked up for the rest of their lives. Above are some of the major barriers which ex-prisoners face upon release. Without specific programmes to address things like mental illness, the community will be no safer once the term of imprisonment is over.The Out of the Gate programme provides support for offenders for one month after release. Participants’ rate of reconviction is reduced by 9.5 percent, and their rate of imprisonment reduced by 17 percent. Despite its success, it is only available to offenders serving sentences of two years or less or who have been on remand for more than 60 days. This excludes most remand prisoners and longer serving prisoners who in reality require more assistance reintegrating into the community.[14]Maori Focus Units and Maori Therapeutic Programmes are therapeutic communities and rehabilitation programmes based on Maori principles and practices. In the 2009 evaluation report, based on the 123 participants, it was found that the units and programmes produced an overall positive change in participants, through strengthening cultural identity.[15] Research showed a change in the thinking styles of the inmates away from impulsive and hostile criminal thinking, to one “more inclined to consider the consequences of their actions”[16]. Importantly, it motivated participants to rebuild family relationships. Participants had a slightly lower rate of reconviction and re-imprisonment than those of similar risk who did not take the programme. However due to the small sample size, it was not statistically significant.[17]Both programmes showed success in lowering participants rates of reoffending and reincarceration by focusing the physical, mental and spiritual needs of offenders. However, these programmes are only available to a small percentage of offenders.In a Ministry of Justice survey, two-thirds of respondents believed that prisons kept the public safe by securely containing prisoners. However only 8% believed that prison would deter a person against reoffending and only 14% believed that the prison system offered the help that offenders needed to offending. [18]New Zealand now has the seventh highest incarceration rate in the OECD.[19] The US Attorney General stated that the US “will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate its way to becoming a safer nation” and this applies equally to New Zealand.The continuation of these trends will come at a high cost to New Zealand families and communities especially the Maori community. Dr Kim Workman said in relation to Maori, the levels of imprisonment have reached mass imprisonment so "that the effects cease to explicable in term of individual offending and involve whole communities… in this situation... imprisonment becomes part of the socialisation process. Every family, every householder, every individual in these neighbourhoods has direct personal knowledge of the prison—through a spouse, a child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend. Imprisonment ceases to be a fate of a few criminal individuals and becomes a shaping institution for whole sectors of the population.” Dr Kim Workman also noted “that the social and demographic indicators that identify those who are most likely to be victimized are identical to the markers for those likely to be offenders”.[20]The Department of Corrections Budget for 2016/2017 was $1.765 billion. This was an increase of 145 million from estimated actual expenditure of $1.620 billion in 2015/16. Prison based custodial expenditure takes up a majority of operating expenditure at almost $900 million in 2016/2017. In October 2016, the Government announced it would spend a further $1 billion adding 1,800 more prison beds.[21]A Salvation Army research participant asked: “Instead of the Government spending over 90 grand to keep us in prison every year, why don’t they invest it on keeping us out?” Justice Minister Amy Adams stated that “to stop people ending up in the justice system and stop the crimes happening and the victims being created is getting them educated, getting them into jobs and making sure we are dealing with alcohol and drug issues, mental health issues, and making sure we are dealing with the trauma and abuse in homes that some children are going through growing up, [and making sure that] is being picked up early.”[22]The United States traditionally has not been known to have the best criminal justice system but previous failures have led to movements and reforms such as the Justice Re-investment. The Justice Re-investment model’s key goals are to ‘reduce spending on corrections and increase public safety’, and ‘re-invest in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighbourhoods’. It provides a good example on what can be accomplished through effective and holistic policy initiatives. Case studies on the Justice Re-investment movement has shown great success in states such as Kentucky and North Carolina where JRI legislation has resulted in notable reduction of prison numbers and estimated savings in the hundred million.As the New Zealand public, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves more about our prison system and show the government we support policies that look beyond incarceration and managing prison number, and policies that support offenders to reintegrate back into society. New Zealand will never be able to decrease the need for prisons without putting pressure on the government for positive change, not taking the knee-jerk response of punishment but of community responsibility.


The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. [1] Jenna Lynch and Emma Hurley “Government shifts crime reduction goalposts” (3 May 2017) Newshub <>.[2] Department of Corrections Prison facts and statistics – December 2016 (December 2016).[3] Annaliese Johnston Beyond the Prison Gate (The Salvation Army Social Policy & Parliamentary Unit, December 2016) at 15.[4] Mel Smith Report of Mel Smith, Ombudsman Following A Reference By The Prime Minister Under Section 13(5) Of The Ombudsmen Act 1975 For An Investigation Into Issues Involving The Criminal Justice Sector (December 2007) at 4.[5] Johnston, above n 3, at 8.[6] New Zealand Government “Collins Delivers On Tougher Bail Laws” (28 August 2013, New Zealand Government) <> as cited in Johnson, above n 3, at 11.[7] JustSpeak Unlocking Prisons How We Can Improve New Zealand’s Prison System (JustSpeak, 2014) at 19.[8] Sentencing Act 2002, s 7.[9] JustSpeak , above n 7 at 31.[10] At 39.[11] Criminal Justice Reform Bill 2006 (93–1) (explanatory note) at 5; Ministry of Justice Home Detention: A review of the sentence of home detention 2007 – 2011 (Wellington 2011).[12] Johnston, above n 3, at 48.[13] Johnston, above n 3, at 55.[14] Department of Corrections Out of Gate Budget 2016 (2016)[15] Policy Strategy and Research Group Maori Focus Units and Maori Therapeutic Programmes (Department of Corrections, May 2009) at 28.[16] At 17.[17] At 29.[18] Judith Collins “Government Approves Plans For Increased Prison Capacity” (2016, New Zealand Government) <> as cited in Johnson, above n 3, at 17[19] “Incarceration rates in OECD countries as of 2017” (May 2017, Statista) <>[20] Johnston, above n 3, at 27.[21] At 18.[22] Nick Butcher “Restorative justice impact on reoffending 2008 to 2015” Law Talk (New Zealand, 16 June 2016)