Use of imprisonment: NZ a peaceful but unforgiving society

Tuesday 30 August 2011, 6:19PM

Compared with other Western democracies, New Zealand is keen on sending its citizens to prison. Our prison population has been rising for the last 50 years and in October 2010, reached a total of 8,892 inmates. New Zealand now locks up 199 people per 100,000 of its population.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College in London, this gives us the second highest rate of imprisonment out of 29 countries in the Western world. This is higher than Britain and Canada, even though those countries both have greater rates of violent crime than New Zealand. And it puts us in the company of Third World countries like Gabon, Namibia and Libya (currently in a state of civil war) which have very similar rates of imprisonment to ours. It even puts us higher than Colombia despite the drug-related murder and violence going on there.

NZ perceived as a peaceful country

This is very strange when you consider that from an international perspective, New Zealand is perceived as a peaceful country. For the last two years in a row, New Zealand has topped the Global Peace Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace - out of 149 countries. The index is based on 23 indicators including corruption, violence, crime rates, military spending and access to primary education. Other countries in the top ten include Iceland, Japan, Austria and all five Scandinavian countries.

In 2010, New Zealand was also ranked third by the United Nations (out of 169 countries) in terms of ‘human development’ - defined as ‘the economic and political freedoms required to live long, healthy and creative lives’ based on information about life expectancy, schooling, income and a number of other factors.

New Zealand a vengeful society

We may be peaceful, but we also seem to be vengeful; and for those who commit crime, prison has increasingly become New Zealand’s punishment of choice. The only Western country with a higher rate of imprisonment than ours is the United States - which locks up a massive 748 people per 100,000. The imprisonment rate for Maori is 704 per 100,000 of Maori population, which is not far off the US rate.

These are disturbing figures, of which most New Zealanders are probably unaware. There is a similar lack of awareness about the number of New Zealanders sent to prison each year. The daily prison muster is currently at 8,755 - but this figure is deceptive, as the prison population is very fluid.

14,000 New Zealanders are sent to prison on remand each year, most for only a few weeks or months at a time. Adding to the transient nature of the prison population, around 80% of sentenced prisoners serve less than six months and are ‘maintained’ in prison without the opportunity to attend rehabilitation programmes. The result is that, altogether, more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year.

For more on New Zealand's justice system, read:  Flying Blind - How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct