The prison dilemma facing Labour

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Labour will announce its decision whether to proceed with the Waikeria mega-prison this Wednesday. Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis is scheduled to make the announcement at the prison.

Ardern made it clear at her post Cabinet press conference that the Government is opposed to large scale prisons.

 “I do want to note that there is absolutely universal agreement across all Government parties that our justice system is not working,” she said.

“The American style approach of building mega-style prisons and filling them with low-level criminals is not working.

“We are as a Government committed to making our country and communities safer by reforming the criminal justice system with a focus on rehabilitation and stopping people from, entering on a life of crime.

“Of course we need to make sure that the worst, most violent offenders are locked away and that prisons aren’t used as training grounds for lower level offenders to become hardened criminals.”

But any hopes the Government might have of reducing the prison population by rolling back some of National’s changes which saw a dramatic jump in the prison population were dashed yesterday when Justice Minister Andrew Little had to admit NZ First would not support his proposal to repeal the so-called three strikes law.

Whilst the third strike law itself has had only a minimal impact on prison population, what the NZ First objection revealed was that the party will require some convincing to get it to agree to any liberalisation of sentencing.

The third-strike law was the product in 2010 of the ACT party and strongly supported by then-Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, and the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

Under “three Strikes” a first warning is issued when an offender aged 18 or over at the time of a qualifying offence, and who does not have any previous warnings, is convicted of that offence. Once an offender has received a first ‘strike’ warning, it stays on their record for good unless their conviction is overturned.

If that offender is subsequently convicted of another qualifying offence they receive a final warning and, if sentenced to imprisonment, will serve that sentence in full without the possibility of parole. The first and final warnings will stay on the offender’s record.

On conviction of a third qualifying offence the court must impose the maximum penalty for the offence. The court must also order that the sentence be served without parole, unless the court considers that would be manifestly unjust.

At present there are 40 qualifying offences which include all major violent and sexual offences attracting a maximum penalty of 7 years or more. They include murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated robbery, sexual violation, indecent assault, wounding with intent, abduction and kidnapping.

But the legislation appears to have only a limited impact on prison numbers. Last year, according to Justice Department Statistics, there were 85 final warnings issued and one “third strike” sentence.

Instead the big jump in prison numbers has come from the toughening up on putting accused but non convicted prisoners on remand.

In 2009 there were 8244 prisoners of whom 1729 were on remand. Last December there were 10394 prisoners, of whom 2951 were on remand.

Andrew Little wants to address these sorts of issues in a Justice summit in August.

There are other ideas within Labour too; in Opposition, Kelvin Davis (now Corrections Minister) called for a Maori prison.

But the immediate issue is Waikeria.

Last year a report by the Chief Inspector of Corrections, Janis Adair, found that some of the buildings  at Waikeria, in particular the high security unit, were in a very bad condition.

Her report said: “Waikeria Prison’s original 1911 building remains on the site (with alterations) and is still used to house high security prisoners, including those on remand.

“In 2012, four of the building’s nine units were closed, as they were no longer considered fit for purpose.

“In 2015, the Department of Corrections announced it planned to close the building’s remaining units.

“However, due to the rising prison population, some closures did not go ahead and four of the units continue to be used as a high security facility.”

Adair found the unit to be in very poor condition.

“Many of the cells were dark and damp, with minimal natural light and little air flow.“

Some parts of flooring in the toilet areas were stained and the floor coverings were lifting and decaying. 

“Graffiti was on most surfaces. 

“The stainless steel toilets were designed not to have lids, which was a hygiene issue, because meals were eaten in the cells.” 

She said the exercise yards  had rubbish on the floor, graffiti (some gang-related) on the walls, and moss on the floors and walls. 

“The exercise yards had dirty shower blocks that had paint peeling from the walls. In one of the yards, we saw a broken water basin spraying out water.” 

At the very least the Government will have to deal with these issues. 

But until it can find a political way to reduce the number of prisoners it will also have to look at expanding the total number of prison beds in New Zealand. 

Waikeria, which is set on a 1280 ha site is an obvious site to expand from its current 650 beds. 

But from what Ardern said at her press conference it would seem unlikely that the previous Government’s proposal to expand it to 3000 beds is likely to go ahead. 

NZ First’s position on law and order is hard but not necessarily as hard line as it is often portrayed. 

At its 2016 conference in Dunedin it voted down a remit calling for paedophiles to wear GPS bracelets until their death. 

However it did approve a remit calling for people who appeared before the courts and who had previous convictions of serious violence be denied home detention or parole. 

Interestingly at the 2014 election, Garth McVicar, the founder of Sensible Sentencing, decided not to stand for NZ First but instead stood for the Conservatives. 

So NZ First may not ultimately prove to be an immovable obstruction on justice reform but in the meantime the Government is going to have to do something at Waikeria even if it is not the mega-prison.

 

 

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