Open letter to Gerry Brownlee - and his little piece of Finland.

Thursday 29 March 2012, 11:19AM

Dear Gerry,

Thank you for comparing New Zealand to Finland and bringing these remarkable differences between our two countries into the open. Professor John Pratt, a criminologist at Victoria University has been making similar comparisons for years - but no one seems to listen. That’s a shame because Prof Pratt is recognised by those in his field as a world authority on the subject.

What’s more, Prof Pratt actually knows what he’s talking about. He’s been to Finland, undertaken extensive research and written numerous articles and books on the subject – so if you want to make another speech about Finland, perhaps he could help you out.  Here’s something Prof Pratt could tell you.

In 1950, the Finns had an imprisonment rate of 187 inmates per 100,000 of population. New Zealand's rate in 1950 was less than a third of that - at 56 inmates per 100,000. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Finns became concerned that they were out of line with their more civilised Scandinavian neighbours, which had low rates of imprisonment. This led to dramatic changes in penal policy, as a result of which the number of people in prison slowly began to drop by. By 2001, the rate was down to only 40 people per 100,000 - an extraordinary reduction of 78% in the prison population.

During the same 50 years, New Zealand went in the opposite direction. In 2001, instead of being three times less, our rate of imprisonment was three times higher than Finland’s - at 150 inmates per 100,000. Since then, the New Zealand rate has continued to grow and in November 2011, the figure was at an all-time high of 199 per 100,000. During this time we’ve had to build five new prisons - and even put prisoners into shipping containers.

How did the Finns manage to reduce their prison population? Commenting on the Finns’ remarkable success, Prof Pratt wrote:  “Key people in that society - people who actually knew something about penal policy and the consequences of imprisonment: academics, judges and senior civil servants - felt that the high prison population was shameful”.

In New Zealand, the media (and the politicians) mostly seem to consult Garth McVicar - a farmer from Napier with no qualifications in psychology, sociology, criminology or anything else to do with penal policy. No wonder our prisons are overflowing and your government is going to build another one at Wiri - with $900 million of our money.

Ironically, your Government has also announced a reduction in reoffending as one of its ten key goals. If you’re serious about that – go to Finland and see for yourself. Anne Tolley went – and now she’s the Minister of Corrections. The two of you could compare notes. And another thing - Finland has the most comprehensive victim compensation system in the world. You could take Garth McVicar with you. He might learn something about helping victims instead of spouting off about locking up more and more people.

So my advice, Gerry, is give Prof Pratt a call on your Nokia - on your little bit of Finland. You might learn something about how to reduce reoffending, help victims and save the country billions in prison costs.