Within this political environment a former cow cocky running the Sensible Sentencing Trust has somehow become the intellectual giant to which all policy judgments fall. While a fine example of a successful lobby group, the Trust has lead to regrettable policies, crowned perfectly by the Three Strikes legislation of 2010.
Three Strikes was so watered down in New Zealand that it couldn’t reach the ludicrous heights it did in America (one man was sent to prison for 25 years to life for shoplifting golf clubs). Nevertheless, it dangerously removed judicial discretion and all the while it was never likely to make any impact on the crime rate (comparative studies show that it made no difference in America, except to blow out state budgets).
But before the ink had dried on that legislation, which only became law because National needed the Act party’s support, this seemingly insatiable appetite for populist policies, unsupported by evidence, was coming to an end.
In 2010, Finance Minister Bill English said prisons in New Zealand were a “moral and fiscal failure”. It was an incredible admission.
It was hardly startling to anybody who had taken even a cursory glance at the numbers, however. New Zealand held one of the highest imprisonment records per head of population of any country we might ordinarily compare ourselves to. And we were climbing at a rate even faster than the US. Perhaps more concerning, but unsurprising, our jails were full of Maori, the poor and poorly-educated and those with mental health and drug and alcohol problems. For these reasons recidivism rates were high (around two-thirds of those under 20 return to prison). We were locking up the bad, mad and sad as quick as you like, only to release them, so we could lock them up again. A moral failure, indeed.
But who would care if it wasn’t costing an absolute fortune? Not Bill English I wouldn’t think. It costs over $90,000 per prisoner per year (not including the capital costs associated with building new prisons). In a recession this could not be ignored. Out went the old school chief executive Barry Mathews and in came Ray Smith, a man with a ton of bureaucratic experience but none in corrections, and it was the latter that served him well. He has been bold and acted in ways that only the naïve can: unhampered by past failures or concerns.
Suddenly we are focusing on trying to turn around the lives of prisoners. In short, we are helping them and not just housing them. The culture shift that this requires inside prison walls is one I could not have believed if not for seeing it with my own eyes. The fear, of course, is that all of this will be seen as going soft on crime. And will the electorate support that when for years it has been told ‘lock ‘em up’ is the answer?
Smith is not some mad maverick acting alone, his bravery reflects that of his minister and the government. Smith is overseeing a policy of reducing reoffending by 25 percent over five years. Those aren’t just statistics. Every person who doesn’t reoffend means at least one less victim of crime.
This will be one of the interesting elements of this election. What part will crime and justice policy play? Can the National Party, who has done so incredibly well in this area, convince the people that this U-turn is actually in everybody’s interests?
Maybe. The Act party under Jamie Whyte is not as likely to be as blatantly populist as the party’s last two leaders and that takes away a significant idiot voice. Furthermore, the intellectuals among Labour have had to swallow so many dead rats over the years regarding their own terrible crime policies that they will be (quietly) as encouraged by National’s approach as anyone.
Still, habits of a generation are hard to break. We are only ever one high profile incident – one moral panic – away from a return to simple solutions that sound great on the hustings. And if there’s ever a time that rationality gets such a deliberate hiding, it’s in an election year. In this area at least, I wish the government the best of luck.