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Over 7,000 people in New Zealand are sent to prison each year on 'short sentences' - defined by the Corrections Department as two years or less. In fact, 80% of all those sent to prison are given short sentences - and are automatically released after serving half of their time. Only offenders imprisoned for two years or more serve their whole sentence - unless the Parole Board releases them earlier. Ever since the Graeme Burton debacle, most of those on 'long' sentences now serve at least two thirds.
Because short-term prisoners not there for very long, the Corrections Department does not generally allow them to attend education, training or rehabilitation programmes. The Department’s website says: “The amount of time to be served (by those on short term sentences) is likely to severely limit the offender's opportunities… This means it is very unlikely that these offenders will attend rehabilitative programmes while in prison.”
The revolving prison door
Many offenders given short sentences commit ‘public nuisance’ type offending - usually under the influence of alcohol. Often they are in and out of prison again and again without attending any kind of intervention. To get into a rehabilitation programme in prison, they have to commit a more serious offence and receive a sentence of more than two years – otherwise they’re not likely to be eligible.
In other words, out of the thousands of New Zealanders sent to prison in the last 50 years, 80% have not been allowed to attend any rehabilitation programmes - because their offending was not considered serious enough. So they sit around for up to a year with virtually nothing to do - as described in the Ombudsman’s report on the treatment of prisoners in 2006.
A drop in the bucket
It may be that this short-sighted approach is beginning to change. In June 2010, a three-month alcohol and drug programme began at Otago prison targeted at short-term offenders. This will allow around 120 short-term inmates to receive treatment. In November 2010, another drug treatment unit (DTU) opened at an Auckland prison. A third DTU opened at the Wanganui prison in Septemeber 2011, enabling the number of short-term inmates eligible to receive alcohol and drug treatment to about 500 per year. That’s 500 places for 7,000 prisoners sent to prison each year on short sentences - little more than a drop in the proverbial bucket. Since the vast majority of those in prison have alcohol and drug problems, they will still miss out.
Want to know more about our crazy prison system? Get the inside story from Roger Brooking: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.