Department's double standards (the MIRP doesn't work).

Saturday 17 March 2012, 8:21AM

The Government has set 10 targets for the public sector to achieve over the next three to five years. One of those targets is a reduction in criminal reoffending. The responsibility for this clearly falls on the Corrections Department - which currently provides a number of rehabilitation programmes focussed on different aspects of offending such as anti-social thinking, drug addiction or a propensity for violence.

Most offenders are referred to the MIRP (Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme) which is available both in prison and to offenders in the community. The MIRP was introduced by Corrections in 2008 and replaced a programme called Straight Thinking which had been the cornerstone of the Department’s rehabilitation efforts for years. The Department’s website says: “The aim of (Straight Thinking) is to assist offenders address one of the main causes of their offending - that is the lack of critical reasoning required for social integration”.

Between 2000 and 2006, over 10,000 offenders attended this programme. The problem was - it didn't work. Corrections cancelled it in 2006 after an evaluation found it increased the likelihood of offending rather than reducing it.

The flaws in the programme

One of Straight Thinking’s flaws was that it was a cognitive skills programme requiring better than average literacy skills -  which are a bit of a rarity among those in prison. According to Corrections executive prison manager, Dr Brendan Anstiss, such programmes ‘have at best a modest effective on recidivism’. And yet the Department went on to introduce the MIRP - described on its website as: “A generic programme to teach offenders how to alter the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that led to their offending and assist them to develop strategies for maintaining any positive changes made”.

This sounds remarkably similar to the description of the Straight Thinking programme it replaced. In 2010, the Department completed an initial evaluation which indicated the MIRP reduced subsequent re-imprisonment by 2%. The Department seemed to think this was a good outcome – the Annual Report for 2010 described the result like this:

“The results reflect a period of delivery (2008-09) during which this programme was rapidly expanded across the country, involving considerable training and support provided to the programme delivery workforce, which suggests that, once fully bedded in, this programme will produce significantly positive outcomes”.

One of the Department’s critics, Roger Brooking, was not so sure. In Flying Blind – how the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, Mr Brooking wrote: “This sounds like more managerial spin. The reality is that the MIRP is just another cognitive skills programme, which according to Dr Brendan Anstiss ‘have at best a modest effective on recidivism’. In that it doesn’t treat drug and alcohol problems, it seems doubtful that it will be much more effective than the programme it replaced.”

Mr Brooking was right. The programme is now bedded in and the Department’s Annual Report for 2011 (on page 16) shows the MIRP is no more effective than the programme it replaced. Although there is a small reduction in reoffending in the first 12 months, after two years, the reduction in the rate of imprisonment by those completing the programme is reported at 0.0%. It has no long term benefit.

Corrections Department's double standard

In other words, if the Government is to achieve any reduction in re-offending, it will not be achieved by the Corrections Department. Government will have to rely almost entirely on Serco which currently runs the Mt Eden prison and will soon be given the task of running the new prison at Wiri. Making sure that Serco performs better than Corrections, the private provider will be punished by the Department if they don’t. The NZ Herald reported: “Serco will face stiff financial penalties if it does not meet rehabilitation targets - which will be set at 10 % lower than public prisons.”

Serco (but not Corrections) also faces penalties if prisoners escape – they had to cough up $150,000 to Corrections in February when a prisoner escaped from Mt Eden – even though two prisoners escaped from Corrections prisons on the same day. It seems there’s one rule for Corrections (we don’t have to achieve anything) and another rule for Serco (you have to do better than us).

Anyway, Serco has to reduce reoffending by ten per cent less than zero. Sounds like a walk in the park – well it will be if more prisoners escape.