By Geoff Simmons*
Well done to Andrew Little for raising the thorny criminal justice conversation. Those who care about wasting taxpayer money should be calling for him to be bolder.
Here’s why: we already have the 2nd highest prison population in the world. Yet if we do nothing we will still need a $1b new prison every 2-3 years. Every new prisoner costs $100,000+ per year. Locking people up harms future generations too - children of prisoners are 5x more likely to end up in jail themselves.
None of this is reducing crime. In fact, all the evidence shows that putting people in prison makes crime worse. Prisons are breeding grounds for crime. The more people we lock up the more we will need to lock up.
Even if you don’t care about the wasted human potential, prisons are a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. Many states in the US have woken up to this fact and are reducing their prison populations for budgetary reasons, without any impact on crime.
If you lock people up then release them without helping them, they will commit more crimes and end up back in jail. Most of the people in jail have a drug or alcohol problem or a mental health issue, yet they often receive help for neither. Again, Sensible Sentencing Trust slogans like “throw away the key” are not helpful and just send the prison population even higher.
Of course, the concern for politicians is looking like you are “soft on crime”. That is what stopped Bill English doing anything about the ballooning prison population despite him calling prisons a “moral and fiscal failure”.
Getting “tough on crime” is nothing but an expensive political slogan. This attitude has sent our prison population through the roof - and the growth shows no sign of stopping. This is the legacy of previous National and Labour Governments.
Even Andrew Little himself has fallen into the “tough on crime” trap, stating that reform isn’t about reducing the numbers of people we put in prison, just doing a better job of rehabilitating them. This is absurd. People with drug problems should be sent to rehab, not to prison. People with mental health problems should be sent to counselling, not prison. When people need help, locking them up only makes their problems worse.
Prison should only be for violent offenders. Yet we are sending people to prison for not being able to pay their car registration fees. We are basically sending people to prison for being poor. In prison they meet hardened criminals. What good can come of that?
The Labour/NZ First answer of more police is also no real solution either. More police means more people in prison and we know more people in prison just leads to more crime.
Victims are rightly concerned about going soft on criminals. But we have to find better ways of giving victims justice than locking people up. The human and financial cost of prison is just too great. Restorative justice is a huge step forward but is grossly underfunded. In some countries some of the money saved by reducing the prison population has also gone into a victim's compensation fund.
Retribution is only one of the reasons for a justice system. Prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration are other reasons. But right now, almost all our effort and money go into retribution. And it isn't working.
The Government's criminal justice summit sounded like a useful conversation starter. Well done to the people working in this field who have been pushing these ideas for a long time. Well done also to Andrew Little for being willing to take on this thorny issue.
Sadly, I don't rate the Government's chances of turning this conversation into action, judging by the reaction of coalition partner NZ First. All the evidence may point to prisons being a total waste of money, but NZ First has never shown much interest in either evidence or saving money.
However, if those who care about wasting taxpayers’ money speak up, there is chance of building a broader political consensus.
*Geoff Simmons is an economist and The Opportunities Party's leader.