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Undermining Public Safety?

 photo of Phil McCarthyfrom Phil McCarthy
National Director, Prison Fellowship New Zealand

“Sex crims walk in park” screamed a front page Dominion Post headline last week.  Apparently “two paedophiles and a killer” had the temerity to be taking some fresh air together.

Had they escaped?  Were they on the prowl?  How had three such characters managed to get together in these circumstances? The headline and article opening were perfectly cast to generate a sense of moral outrage. 

Then, almost casually, the article mentioned “they were being supervised by three staff from a residential centre” they were apparently living in.  Three!  And almost as casually: “All three offenders are subject to electronic monitoring”.  And it seemed two of the men had completed their sentences and were on Extended Supervision Orders. 

Breathlessly, the article recounted the admittedly horrendous nature of their offending.  On refection, it looked like the walk in the park was simply an excuse to lather up the public with gratuitous recounting of their crimes, which occurred fourteen to twenty years ago.

It’s not at all unusual for the media to turn to the court reporter or archived crime records to cope with a slow news day.  Hysterical, emotive stories readily on tap to ensure papers are sold and programmes viewed.  Careful, considered, informative analytical stories are rare, and even consistency is not always prized.

I remember another DomPost headline, about ten years ago when I was still in the system, reporting real concerns about the deteriorating proportion of prisoners who were working.  That story was actually fair enough; we simply had not managed to provide sufficient growth in work opportunities during a period when prisoner numbers were growing at an alarming rate.  But the following week, to the day as I remember, the same paper’s headline screamed shock and horror:  “Sex Offenders picking fruit”.  It seemed a better class of criminal was required!The Corrections system has a responsibility to manage sentences handed down by the court, safely and effectively.  But it also has a responsibility to effectively and safely manage the re-entry of offenders into the community, when their sentences have ended or when parole has been granted.

Safe management of this re-entry process means acknowledging that restrictions must be relaxed gradually; that safe completion of supervised park strolls is a necessary precursor to unsupervised ones; that providing opportunities to long-term prisoners to work, initially under close supervision, then on day-release to employers in the community creates stability and habits and patterns of behaviour that are more likely to ensure a safe and robust release, and therefore public safety.  We have an excellent risk assessment system in New Zealand; many would say it is too pervasive.  But it means personal and electronic supervision can be imposed where necessary.

Parole statistics have long shown that the managed release of someone into the community is far more effective than a sudden shift from a tightly controlled incarceration to complete freedom.  Prisoners’ sentences end.  Once risk to the community is assessed to have been reduced below ‘undue’ levels, lifers are paroled.   I want to see these people tested in and exposed to the community gradually, not suddenly exposed to the demands of a world that can be terrifying, intimidating and unfamiliar.

Hysterical headlines that resurrect the details of horrendous crimes undermine this process.  They not only make us more fearful, more irrational, they actually undermine public safety if they reduce opportunities for gradual exposure.  And they inhabit a fantasy – or maybe an American –world where sentences don’t end, prisoners don’t get released, and where prison populations and budgets are four times the ridiculous levels we are already experiencing.  Bill English said a few years ago that prisons were a ‘moral and fiscal failure’.  Why on earth would we want more of them?