Howard League calls for 50% cut in prison population

Friday 6 April 2012, 7:53AM

The Howard League for Penal Reform is calling for a 50% reduction in the prison population. On Monday April 2nd the Wellington Branch of the League held its inaugural meeting at Parliament hosted by Labour’s Charles Chauvel.  Other speakers at the opening included the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Grant Robertson, VUW criminologist Dr Elizabeth Stanley and Peter Williams QC.

At the meeting, spokesman Roger Brooking pointed out that New Zealand's rate of imprisonment is about 200 people per 100,000 of population. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, this gives New Zealand the second highest rate of imprisonment in the Western world. On a population basis, we lock up more people than Britain which has an imprisonment rate of 155, Australia at 124 and Canada at 117.

New Zealand’s rate puts us in the company of Third World countries like Mexico and Libya – where thousands have died in a civil war and drug related violence – but which have similar rates of imprisonment to New Zealand. Our rate puts us ahead of South American countries like Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia and Honduras.

Mr Brooking pointed out that Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world with an average of 20 murders a day. Mr Brooking said: “In 2011 there were 39 murders in New Zealand, which is less than one murder a week. One a week is still too many - I know - but guess what. NZ locks up more people per capita than Honduras. Their rate is only 154 per 100,000. There is no doubt that we are a very punitive society,” said Mr Brooking. “We like locking people up”.

NZ tops the Global Peace Index

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 - out of 149 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’.

Mr Brooking pointed out that altogether more than 20,000 New Zealanders spend time in prison each year. 80% are given short sentences and are in and out of prison in less than six months. Mr Brooking said: “Our prisons have become a revolving door for those who repeatedly commit relatively minor offending - usually under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Our prisons have become a holding tank for alcoholics and drug addicts. We use them to provide warehousing for the mentally ill and those with brain damage.  The majority of these people should be in treatment, or in supported accommodation, not in prison.”

The Government is planning to build a new prison at Wiri at a cost of $900 million. Mr Brooking said: “We don’t need another prison. There are currently 1,600 empty beds in New Zealand prisons already. If the government is willing to spend $900 million, let’s put that money into early intervention programs, drug courts, increased treatment facilities in the community, and supported halfway houses for prisoners on release.  Let’s put more fences at the top of the cliff instead of building yet another prison at the bottom.”

Roger Brooking
Howard League for Penal Reform
Author of Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct