The case for a cannabis referendum


I personally support a referendum. I think it would be too divisive to pass legislation without first knowing whether that is even what New Zealanders want. And given the propensity of New Zealand politicians for partisan politics, I might reasonably hazard a guess that if such legislation DID get passed through any backlash would be seized upon as New Zealanders objecting to cannabis.

And here would be where the politics start. Let us suppose that that is what happened: a law gets passed through Parliament, catching most people unawares, someone finds out and goes to the media full of indignation about it. The legislation itself might be perfectly fine, but the fact that a party is attempting to force it through Parliament without going to “we the people” has suddenly caused a major ruckus. Being a small country, within a short time the whole of New Zealand knows that cannabis laws are being pushed through Parliament. One major party or the other is demanding a referendum to force the issue into the open where everyone can see it.

Before the referendum, we would need to have a formal debate about it where someone speaks for those who support cannabis and someone to speak for those who are against it. A medical practitioner, legal practitioner, a police officer and a Member of Parliament would would be my preferred composition of the panel to talk about the issues that society might be faced with.

The referendum would need to address some thorny issues, such as what forms of cannabis are going to be voted on. What will the question be? Will it be a simple majority of 51% vs 49% or will there need to be a super majority to ensure the vote is clear of any obstacles?

Some people might question the timing of a cannabis referendum. I do not. It is very clear to me that the “War on Drugs” both here and abroad has failed to achieve its goals and that the only responsible thing to do is to wind it up. It is also clear to me that the support for medical cannabis has swung substantially in favour of allowing its use for purely medical reasons. In saying that, we need to acknowledge the hugely damaging consequences of synthetic cannabis which is causing major problems both in New Zealand and abroad.

But the movement in New Zealand is growing. I personally am not sure whether legalization or decriminalization is better and to what extent it should happen. In the United States the number of people going to jail for being in possession of small amounts of cannabis has led to a burgeoning jail population. Minor criminals end up meeting major league players and becoming hardened criminals, some with a vendetta against society who come out more dangerous than they went in.

Video clips on Youtube of people who have been destroyed by synthetics show zombie like beings in weird postures, completely oblivious to what is happening around them, are disturbing. Sure there is a growing problem with synthetics in New Zealand as well, but for someone completely trashed on synthetic cannabis, a jail cell or – as would potentially happen in Singapore – execution is not the answer. A rehab clinic is. There is no place for executing people and the jail cells should be spared for the chemists (the ones who make the synthetics), the importers, the dealers.

But if we agree that a referendum on cannabis should only deal with low powered product that might induce a brief high, but nothing else, then I see a case for a referendum around it.

The corrective challenge facing Corrections


As we watch the latest violent crimes in New Zealand, no doubt there will be – justified – calls for prisoners to be locked up indefinitely and the key thrown away. There will be calls for cold showers and little or no leisure time. Why give them things that many people outside of jail cannot afford say the proponents?

Umm…. perhaps because sooner or later, with the exception of the very worst, most are going to be released. When they are released the public are going to need to know and be assured that the Joe Prisoner who went in four years ago for aggravated assault now no longer poses a threat, has learnt his lesson and wants to become an actively contributing member of society.

But for that to happen, they must be in a prison environment that acknowledges them as humans who have made a mistake. The ones who are open, honest and show genuine remorse are likely to be out at some point and we need to know that they are ready for release – that they can go and live somewhere and be able to cook their own food, find a job and so on. Locking them up and throwing away the key; degrading them with abuse and demeaning punishments will not achieve that. It will make them worse.

The last thing New Zealand needs is for our court system to wind up like the United States, where privatized prisons are common. These for profit businesses are no way to manage criminals and their pursuit of the almighty dollar over and above being a facility where prisoners do their time and hopefully learn from their wrongs.

But National thought in its nine year tenure that such a model was indeed acceptable practice for managing prisons. Thus we wound up with Mt Eden Fight Club where staff and prisoners regularly duelled and prisoners would encourage fights that would get recorded on camera. And the defenders of such a wayward model seemed to think that prisoners do not deserve better, which suggests to me that the management of prisons then were not serious about the welfare of the prisoners.

This is where one can argue that prisons at that point risk becoming an environment where the inmates develop a festering hatred or anger towards society that they do not know how to keep in check. Thus when a prisoner has done his/her time and is ready for release, the authorities are not so much releasing a prisoner determined to make amends for their wrongs, but a prisoner who is a ticking time bomb likely to commit in the very near future a serious offence .

Has the Labour-led Government learnt from the disastrous experience of having Serco, a multinational that has prison contracts for a host of countries including Australia, run our prisons? Has it learnt from the Mt Eden Fight Club videos that were leaked to media, and made the then Minister for Corrections go into hiding?

I am not sure what the current Minister for Corrections, Kelvin Davis has learnt.

Maybe Mr Davis should look to other countries with different management models than the United States. Finland for example has prisons where there are no guards or gates. One can do a university degree. They can learn to do manual labour and .

It was not always like this in Finland. In the 1960’s it and its Nordic neighbours had some of the highest incarceration rates in the world. The authorities, trying to figure out how to bring them down, started looking at the conditions that the prisoners were imprisoned in. They found that if one imprisons them and then starts to gradually but progressively reimmerse them in normal civilian life, a marked drop in reoffending rates occur.

Similarly Norway has found that its prisoner population is much less prone to recidivism. Prisoners and prison officers mingle interactively. The macho culture of the 1960’s where prisoners were locked up, given little in the way of opportunities to reform, to understand right from wrong and recidivism rates of 60-70% were banished.

Serco might be gone from the New Zealand prison system, but its legacy lingers on. The legacy is that New Zealanders have seen how a profits first prisoners second model can lead to significantly worsened management. They have seen how a dangerously toxic environment where recidivism rates remain high can see prisoners are released in a worse mental than that they went in with.

But will the Government have the courage to do something bold, or will it continue to copy an obviously failed model?

 

 

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.

A question of justice


I have a question for you all. The question is one that has been bugging me for some time, but which in recent months has become more immediate, more urgent. It is a question of justice.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly frustrated with the New Zealand justice system as I am sure many others have too. Our reasons for our frustration will be many and varied, but deep down they all point to the same problems:

  • a failure of the courts to hand down sufficiently grave sentences
  • a lack of acceptance of what they have done
  • a failure to prepare those soon to be released for the post jail world – if they have no money or housing to go to, a potential life of crime await

My frustration stems from watching the rising tide of people who think that Police chases are games. They are not and every time someone is killed or injured because they ran away from a police check point, the Police have to be able to explain what went on to their superiors. But not only that, they have to explain it to the family(ies) of the deceased/injured as well.

The frustration, when I try to boil it down to its basic points stems from two separate issues. One is that there does not seem to be a working deterrent to the problem – i.e. something that would stop or discourage people from running before they even considered it, namely a short period of guaranteed jail time of say 48 hours to see how the offender reacts. To many the New Zealand justice system’s ability and willingness to dispense satisfactorily strong sentences is a joke and those handed down are viewed as being slapped with a wet bus ticket.

But it is not just car chases that make me wonder what the problem in the justice system is. How much crime is driven by socio-economic issues? My guess would be quite a bit. From a very early age, way back when a boy is young and just starting to learn about the world and society around him, too many are missing the adult male role model in their lives and the huge difference having a real male role model can have. If or when the boy is subject to bullying will he decide to fight back and possibly suffer disciplinary action that sets in motion a downward spiral or will he have second thoughts?

Maybe it stems from poverty and not going to school on a full stomach, thereby becoming disruptive in class, because the “second brain” of the body is not having due attention paid to it. Maybe it stems from a lack of love at home with no one being at home when a student gets home from school and so they go out and fall in with the wrong crowd. The brain in ones head is the academic one, but a persons stomach in some respects acts as a emotional brain. Between them they determine what might be described as emotional intelligence.

Maybe, as the case I am about to describe, is simply one of no boundaries being set from an early age and now had that aforementioned feeling of being bullet proof. A 13 year old dying in a crash caused by trying to flee the police was one whose caregiver had described as being out of control.

But, okay, lets assume a person does go to jail and do their time in full. They come out genuinely remorseful and admit to the past offences at job interviews, and then cannot get a job because no one will hire someone with a criminal record. Meanwhile the recently released prisoner has to feed, clothe and do all the other things a person needs to do to live, but cannot find the money to fund it all.

And so, the man who had turned his life around, and owned up to his past is now being denied the means to move forward in life and get away from his negative influences. Thus begins a cycle that I suspect is being played out all too frequently among our former jail bird population.

So, what do we do about this?

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.