Building new prisons won’t fix the problem with New Zealand’s justice system, instead, we need to focus on prevention and early intervention, according to a new report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.
The report comes while the government decides whether or not it will build a new 3000-bed prison in Waikeria, despite promising to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent within the next 15 years.
Over the past 30 years, prison costs in New Zealand have risen steadily, with the Government now spending $100,000 on each prisoner per year. This is in part due to high imprisonment numbers: our prison population is one of the highest in the OECD, but our crime rates are actually dropping.
The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman blames successive governments focus on “dogma not data” for our bulging prisons, when they should have been focusing on evidence to drive prison policy.
The report’s lead author, Justice Sector Science Advisor Associate Professor Ian Lambie explained on TVNZ’s Breakfast: “the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric really doesn’t work and I think what we need to do is get ‘smart on crime’ and more intelligent”. Assoc Prof Lambie promotes an evidence-based approach to rehabilitation — using science to understand the best way to help people in the system.
“Generally, prisons don’t work,” Radio NZ reported him saying. Instead, he advocates money set aside for prisons is reallocated to early intervention strategies tackling education and mental needs in communities. Evidence from countries around the world shows that focusing resources on mental health needs and crime prevention not only makes communities safer, but also reduces incarceration rates in a more cost-effective way than waiting to rehabilitate people once they are in prison.
But we must also investigate what an early intervention strategy might look like here, and research whether it would work. The report states: “there must be adequate investment in piloting and evaluating early intervention and prevention initiatives to ensure evidence-based, cost-effective programmes are implemented”.
On Stuff, Justice Minister Andrew Little said the Government “would look at – right from young offending – early interventions, and then what we do with people who do wind up in prison so that they’re spending less time there”.