Americanizing New Zealand prisons


I note that the calls for a radical overhaul of how our Corrections works are mounting. They sit against a backdrop of worsening crime suggesting our approach is not deterring criminals from committing offences, of rehabilitation programmes not working and a nation increasingly doubtful it will get the answers it needs. But could it be because the system we have is not really ours?

Over the years New Zealand has copied a number of American concepts for justice. In doing so it appears to have passed over our own ability to establish our own framework. And as they have taken shape, the individual concepts have come to create a system environment that is not conducive to reforming criminals. There are some stand out examples. The three strikes law introduced by A.C.T. Member of Parliament David Garrett was enacted in 2010. It is based on a controversial American law that mandates a life sentence for a third offence even if it its totally disproportionate to the crime committed.

The three strikes law has all kinds of failings and has led to a range of injustices in the United States. However the insistence of the community for a tough sentence that does not really fit the crime, means someone who committed something relatively minor like breaking into someone’s house as their third offence is now going to jail for the rest of their lives. When coupled with the internal environment of a jail where drugs, violent offences against staff and other prisoners, it runs the risk of undoing the punishment and making the defendant feel like the system is against them.

Another aspect of American justice that bothers me is the tendency to view prisoners as incapable of rehabilitation. In other words they are, despite the Judeao-Christian principle of forgiveness, people who the system has deemed to be permanently violent and dangerous to society. This sets a dangerous precedent for youth offenders who might have come from broken families with no role models to look up to for guidance and now see or perceive the system to be against them being able to learn their lesson. It gets more dangerous still because the way is now open to create a “crime family”, in whose psyche the system is somehow out to destroy them at all costs – the family have children who grow up around drugs, guns and violence and do not get adequate or appropriate schooling; their academic ambition does not exist and they leave school with no qualifications, no idea how to get work.

A third aspect of American law in New Zealand that has failed is the “War on Drugs”. The war has involved the F.B.I. and C.I.A. as well as other agencies whose task has been to intercept and destroy the drug supply network. It has seen them operate in countries such as Colombia, Peru, Brazil. It has seen them aggressively pursue the Mexican drug lords, despite massive and often gruesome retaliation that has not spared law enforcement or the general public. I want to be clear now that this is absolutely not suggesting we just walk away from policing the heavy drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin or synthetic cannabis – absolutely not, as those who deal in the drugs, manufacture them and distribute them need to be firmly shutdown. They need to be sentenced to sentences that make the whole business not worth continuing. But that cannot be done in an increasingly Americanized system that seems to be about punishment at all costs.

New Zealand has been a trail blazer in showing the world how to make ourselves nuclear free, in giving women the vote and environmental resource management law. We can be a trail blazer on this too and trust our instincts that New Zealand justice will not work if based on a system not purpose built and designed for New Zealand conditions.

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