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.

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.