The case for an overhaul of New Zealand’s prisons

It was mentioned yesterday that overcrowding in New Zealand prisons is bringing the penal system to breaking point. Whilst New Zealand does not have the large scale problems of the United States and other countries, the problems posed by the prison system as it currently stands are plenty bad enough.

One can break prisoners down into several groups. There will be a small group whose offending are a symptom of larger problems in their lives – addictions that wound up needing a new source of income to fund their lifestyle, which might have started off as a minor experiment that eventually became all consuming. The range of backgrounds from which these people come might be quite varied, with some coming from normal or relatively normal backgrounds whilst others

If these people can be made to see the harm they are doing and shown how to get help, they might have a future. Acknowledging what they have done is central to the assistance that they get.

Many of the offenders who go to prison know that they have committed a significant wrong – whether they admitted it or not is another thing all together. It might have been a spur of the moment thing such as fleeing from the Police and crashing into another vehicle or an argument that for whatever reason suddenly turned injurious or fatal.

Many of these people will be genuinely remorseful. These are the people who are perhaps least likely to re-offend and deserve a second chance. They are the ones who will probably seek restorative justice opportunities with any victims. They are the ones who might be in stable jobs and have supportive families or spouses who will make sure that they stay on track and help them avoid repeating the circumstances that made them commit the offence in the first place.

There will always be a small group of prisoners who no matter what happens to them will re-offend. These are the ones who need to be locked up indefinitely. These are the offenders who have no care for society, no respect for individuals or property. Among these are the ones who offended for the thrill of it and only regret being caught. This is the group that should have no prospect of release.

These offenders have a high risk of re-offending. They pose a significant threat to the community and monitoring them using tracking devices has a high risk of failing.

The solution of “lock ’em up” is clearly not working in many cases. Too many people are going into jail and coming out in a more dangerous psychological state than that in which they entered. Over crowding of cells just creates an environment where those who are genuinely remorseful or otherwise trying to clean themselves up are being negatively affected.

The privatization of the prisons was a particularly bad idea, and using a foreign multinational company (Serco)to run them was even worse as their accountability was nil. Serco should have been sacked as the contracted company once the organized fights in Mt Eden Prison had been exposed.

Furthermore simply building more prisons, the previous National-led Government proposed to do, just adds to a burgeoning penal system that does not necessarily work. Fixing the prisons is just part of the solution, which will require an inter-agency response. No one ministry is capable of fixing this mess on their own. It will require the input of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Police as well as Department of Corrections.

Whether this Government will understand this is one thing. Acting on that recognition is another thing altogether.

Reaction to compensation row challenges perceptions about released prisoners

Yesterday there was an article about a man who in 2000 was detained inappropriately in an isolation cell. John Vogel was made to spend 23 hours alone in an isolation cell without any contact – telephone, visitors or radio – and was only permitted an hour a day for showering and exercising.

Mr Vogel was found to have chronic depression which was exacerbated by a drug addiction. He asked for the isolation in an attempt to kick the drug habit. The law permits not more than 15 consecutive days in isolation. Mr Vogel was in solitary confinement for 21 days.

I do not condone Mr Vogel’s offending. Murder is a very serious offence to commit under any circumstances, and drug offending is heavily frowned upon as well. Understandably there is a very negative reaction when someone commits one or both of these things.

But when the corrections system goes too far and he is punished beyond what New Zealand law and New Zealand’s international obligations permit, the reaction of people on social media suggests that this is quite okay. The argument is that as a criminal he has lost all of his rights and some go so far as to suggest that the system is not going far enough.

One day in the future Mr Vogel will be released from prison. When prisoners are released from prison they need to have somewhere to live. They need an income and have some means of obtaining a source of income. Society likes to jail serious offenders for obvious reasons, but it does not like to acknowledge the fact that once a prisoner has done their jail time and the Parole Board deems him/her fit for release back into the community, there is no legal ground for continuing to detain a prisoner.

How does society want the prisoner to be released? I sometimes ask people this to see if they have considered what happens once a prisoner has done their time. Some people try to turn the question back on me by pointing out his offences, which is beside the point as the hypothetical prisoner I am talking about has done it and has to be released.

So how should a prisoner be released? If society don’t want him/her to be back in jail at their expense and the prisoner is fully reformed, then they deserve to be given a chance to rebuild their lives and start being useful members of society again. There will be employers who are prepared to give them a chance and community networks who are prepared to give them a go, but will society at large accept that hypothetical prisoner has done his/her time?

No one wants an angry prisoner, infuriated with society and a burning hatred of humans and the law to be released and hopefully the Parole Board will see the warning signs. In the event such people are released, it is perhaps a failure of the corrections system to not provide proper oversight to the Parole Board. Such prisoners are dangerous and can potentially commit much worse crimes than the ones that sent them to jail in the first place.

If an ex-prisoner is released and no support is in place, this presents a situation potentially as dangerous as releasing an already disgruntled one into society. Would people prefer that, or a released prisoner who is rebuilding his or her life, has renounced crime and is wanting to be a role model for other soon to be released prisoners?

I think I know the answer to that one.

Overhauling sentencing laws in New Zealand

The spate of violent offences across New Zealand in the last year continued today with the armed hold up of a supermarket in Ilam, Christchurch, by a man wielding a knife. And as I read the article on the internet about it, I wondered how we can change the sentencing laws in New Zealand not only to better tackle serious offending, but insofar as punishing them goes, getting judges to hand down proper sentences in the first place.

For me in part, it is not the actual sentencing laws that are the problem but the reluctance of the New Zealand judicial system to use the full array of sentences available to it. There is no real point unless the sentences themselves are grossly impaired in making significant changes unless the sentencing judge will arrive at a conclusion that makes a sound case for a heavy sentencing. Right now I have the impression that the sentencing judges are using the wrong reasoning when handing down sentences, but that in handing the sentences down they clearly think the punishments are appropriate.

Another part of the problem is that there is not enough focus on responsibility borne by accused. There will always be a small number of people that no matter how grave the crime, how justified the sentencing judge might be in handing down a heavy sentence, they will always believe themselves to somehow be the victim and blame everyone else. In saying that, and this might be a societal thing as much as an issue of context in the law. This may be exacerbated by the perceptions that certain sections of society believe they are somehow above the law – i.e. a promising rugby player who has assaulted someone might have the Rugby Union come to their defence, saying the player is just a person who needs a bit of guidance and does not know how to handle societal pressure.

Except that by the time one plays representative sport, they should know damn well the difference between societal rights and wrongs. They should know that assaulting a person is a serious offence and that this is the type of offence that gets noticed by customs officials verifying your suitability to enter another country. There should be no defending what happened.

Past posts here have referred to the use of targetted sentencing that hands down sentences appropriate to the crimes permitted – e.g. commit passport fraud, don’t get another passport issued. But how much consideration has been given to the weighting of sentences handed down in court – are the current sentences high enough; at what point should an indefinite sentence be handed down; is it time to reform the Parole Board?

That brings me to another point. The A.C.T Party introduced in 2009 a “Truth in Sentencing” Bill to Parliament that sought to ensure that sentences that get handed down in court are the ones that the offender ends up serving. I could understand the rationale of making sure the sentences imposed are the ones that the sentencing judge on the day intended to impose. But it also introduced a concept that has a very controversial history in the United States, called “Three Strikes”. The way this works is that the judge sends down sentences of increasing gravity, and when the third offence is committed, a minimum sentence of up to 25 years will be imposed.

This has many problems, not least the potential for hugely disproportionate sentences for the third offence that would have been appropriate for far worse crimes than what the accused committed. It also raises the risk, which has been realized in Washington State where the Three Strikes” law was first enabled, that criminals will see the justice system committing an injustice against them. That will not only not encourage them to reform in prison, but a person who went to jail for aggravated assault causing injury might now want to commit murder. No justice in that.

But we here in New Zealand need to have a debate about what sort of justice system we want. The one we currently have serves no one. Criminals are going to jail, but they are not reforming. Victims are losing confidence in the system and possibly not bothering to get justice because they have seen what happens and think it will happen to them. That is not good enough.

Why prisons should never be privatized

In my previous post, I examined Serco’s performance as a company in the business of holding prison contracts from the Government. Now, I set out why I believe private companies should stay out of Government business.

There are some things government should never have control of. And there are some things the private sector should never have control of. There is no doubt that running a prison system is complex, expensive and resource heavy. It is an investment all nations have to make in terms of a functional justice system. How that investment is made varies from one to the next, especially in terms of how the Government and the private sector provide the logistical services that go with a prison system such as catering, santitation, staffing, and so forth.

Operating a prison system can be unforgiving, with no praise given from any quarters – criticism is guaranteed if a recidivist offender gets released early; guaranteed if someone dies in their cell for no obvious reason; a prisoner escapes and no one knows how. But it is a service to the community, to society and the nation whose very well being relies on it. Proponents of the market will say a Government should be as small as possible, and that it should have no responsibility dispensing social services. Those proponents go on to say that the market will adjust to demand accordingly. A Government that is seriously trying to rein spending however it can, without always considering the consequences, might find this approach attractive, because it can say it is being responsible with taxpayer money.

In both philosophical and purely practical terms, I disagree. There is no place for the private sector in running prisons.

I completely fail to see how the *market* can possibly be the best means to provide a service whose truest value to society cannot be measured in dollars. There is no monetary way as any victim of crime will tell you to measure the violating nature of the offence, especially if it involved violence or damage to the one place a persons should be safest – at home. Although it has certainly been tried, I find it difficult to accept statistical analysis of the impact of crime on victims.

But it is not just about the victim. A prison is also a place where those who have done serious crime, which the Courts determined must be punished by a jail sentence, to be rehabilitated if they so wish to make amends. Many do. Some cannot, and some simply refuse. But as part of the contract with society to protect it from criminals there must be a rehabilitative function in prisons with a mixture of psychiatric, medical and educational services coming into play.  Again, just as with the victim, there is no monetary or other economic measure that can truly gauge the benefit to society in successfully turning around a prisoner.

There are also philosophical reasons why the private sector has no place in operating prison systems. Aside from the obvious first priority being to make a profit, a private sector firm will not likely have the same regard as a Government does for human rights laws – all prisoners have basic human rights. Yes they have done wrong things, but a prisoner that is degraded in prison who might have been successfully turned around becomes a dangerous one of the worst kind. When a prisoner has done their time, unless they have exhibited behaviour that suggests they are still a risk, they must be released. The prisoner that is beaten by guards, or attacked by inmates who then go unpunished might decide society is against them even if they have made an effort at reform and go onto commit the very crimes the attempts at reform were intended to stop.

Does that necessarily make the Government the better provider of the services? Not necessarily, but given they have a degree of accountability that the private sector does not, I am yet to be convinced the private sector could do the job better. Unless an independent watch dog with the authority to investigate breaches of contracts and repeal those from companies found to be not fit to hold them, private companies should stay out of Government business.

Gotingco case points to systemic failure of justice system

So the family of Blessie Gotingco have decided to sue the Department of Corrections over its botched handling of the man who attacked Mrs Gotingco. In an open letter to New Zealanders, Antonio Gotingco has pleaded for support as he and his family consider a court case for gross failure to protect Mrs Gotingco from Tony Robertson.

At so many different levels I see failure of the justice system in the case of Mrs Gotingco, who was brutally raped and murdered by a man who was well known to the Ministry of Justice before Mrs Gotingco was murdered. This is a man who would have been known to the Department of Corrections, to the Police and to the Courts. Whilst this is certainly not the first time the Department of Corrections or another part of the Ministry of Justice has failed in its duties, the fact that it is subject to this rare act of litigation, shows the gravity of the failure in this case.

To say that I am not surprised Mrs Gotingco’s family want to sue over the death of their mother, wife, possibly a sister and niece, is an understatement. For such systemic failure as that which we see here, I believe that they have every right to be that angry and determined to get justice. The system failed them. It is as simple as that. And this is how:

Tony Robertson had already done jail time. Previously he had gone to jail for attacking a 5 year old girl. As part of his terms of release he had to wear a bracelet on his ankle 24 hours a day so that his movements could be tracked. He also had an 8PM curfew after which time he had to be at home. 

Robertson’s previous offence showed a calculating person whose offending was wholly premeditated. To lure the girl he had pretended to be talking to the girl’s mother on the cellphone. Robertson was found by a Police officer who had gone to a waterfall carpark leaning over the girl. He pleaded not guilty and was sent to trial, where he was found guilty and jailed for 7 1/2 years.

Those who knew him found this impossible to reconcile with the Robertson they knew – a respect, generous type trying to rebuild his life. And yet at the same time there were some disturbing elements at work such as his constant need for a methamphetamine hit, the lack of a job despite efforts to find one. Robertson himself admitted to trying to keep a ready supply of drugs for him to smoke and his Grandfather said Robertson knew right from wrong, but had become a lost cause.

When Mrs Gotingco was attacked, Robertson initially ran her down in his B.M.W., and then drove her back to his apartment so that he would be compliant with his curfew. We can only imagine the violence that took place, though the pathologist suggested she had been raped and stabbed before dying. Mrs Gotingco’s body was then dumped.

What they did not know was that a psychologists report had been prepared, which painted a terrifying picture of a high risk criminal who would most likely re-offend and possibly commit worse crimes than those that had already been carried out.

Had people known what a ticking time bomb Tony Robertson was, perhaps Blessie Gotingco would be alive today. I wish her family all the best in whatever action they take.